Legendary open-wheel racer Dario Franchitti, who won three Indianapolis 500s as well as the 2008 Rolex 24 At Daytona, served Grand Marshal for the 55th Anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Franchitti, who enjoyed a decorated career in open-wheel racing and conquered the grueling twice-around-the-clock challenge in 2008, took part in the entire weekend of festivities, including delivering the command “Drivers, start your engines” for North America’s most prestigious sports car event.
Daytona International Speedway: You’re certainly no stranger to DAYTONA. You’ve run the Rolex 24 eight times and the DAYTONA 500 once. You’ve raced at a lot of iconic tracks and in a lot of historic races. To you, what makes DAYTONA and this race in particular so unique and so special?
Dario Franchitti: This race, this was always the start of the season. We would – when I started I was driving for Chip [Ganassi] – it was like at some point during the winter, or the autumn, he’d ask “’Hey, are we on for Daytona?’ [Scott] Dixon, myself, the NASCAR boys, we did it. We didn’t get paid any extra to do it; we did it because it was fun.
So we would come down here, we would race against guys from all parts of the sport. I mean you look at some of these guys that are coming over from Europe for the race this weekend, and they raced against Jeff Gordon. Little bits like that are cool, I remember the first year I was here racing Tony Stewart was in the field and I just laughed – it’s the coolest thing. You know Jimmie Johnson was in there a lot of times racing against us and I loved that. From that point of view this race is brilliant. It’s like an all-star type thing.
I would meet guys that I had raced against in Europe growing up that were doing this and we had went different directions in our careers but we came back here and we had a lot of fun with it. But everybody, everybody wants to win the watch. Everybody wants to win the Rolex at Daytona. That’s the bragging rights of that, I think as much as anything, is a big deal.
DIS: Can you take us back to that 2008 Rolex 24? Driving with Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Juan Pablo Montoya, you gave Chip Ganassi racing their 3rd consecutive win. What was that experience like? I know you had some rainy weather too. What do you remember from that race?
DF: We won in 2008, yeah.
I think every time I got in the car it rained. I remember Chip just laughing. We’d get in the car again and here comes the rain, sure enough it came. It rained a lot and it was just – I don’t remember much about it at all, which is probably a good thing because when I started driving for the Ganassi team here I realized pretty quick that you’re a small cog in the whole thing and it just worked so well. You just did your job and everybody else knew what theirs was. You know my job is I would get plugged in the car, at whatever time they’d pull me out of the car I’d go sleep, I’d get plugged back in.
DIS: This is the first race with the new prototype class. What do you think so far? Have you seen what they’re capable of out on the track?
DF: I haven’t looked at them too closely. By that I mean I wanted to go up and look, I just didn’t feel right going up to the teams and saying ‘Hey, show me look at your car.’ I’m sure there is a lot of new stuff in there that they want to keep under wraps. I think they are stunning looking race cars, which I think is important. If you look at, especially GTs there are so many beautiful looking cars, the Daytona Prototypes, they produced good racing but they can never be described as good looking cars. These are good looking cars and I’m interested to see how fragile they are. They’re obviously, clearly fast – look at qualifying – but I think the P2 cars may have an advantage in terms of just staying together longer.
DIS: At this race, you have multiple classes of cars with different speeds, different weights, and different braking points all running close together. How difficult is that to maneuver?
DF: You’ve said it, really. How you manage traffic is everything. There’s obviously the “don’t screw up, don’t crash the thing into the wall, don’t break anything if you can help it,” but it’s all about how you deal with traffic. Being a little tiny bit loose through traffic, not taking the nose off through traffic; those things have got a lot to do with it. You encounter drivers with different abilities and you encounter multiple drivers in the same car. The trick is sometimes not to confuse one of the same guys still in the car with something completely different, a different talent level. So that was always a challenge.
To me a great sports car driver is someone who can get through traffic quickly and Allan McNish was one of the best I think I have ever seen at that. My brother [Marino Franchitti] is really good – that was when were teammates – that was when I lost a little bit to him. I remember when [Juan Pablo] Montoya was driving our car he was very aggressive through traffic and 90% of the time it was amazing, and you know sometimes, there’d be a little damage.
Juan Pablo can drive anything. It’s a shame he’s not full time in IndyCar this year because I love watching him drive. I didn’t much like completing against him because he was so good. I loved being his teammate, I loved watching him drive.
DIS: What’s the toughest part of this race? Is it the night racing, the flat out competition, the different classes, the driver talent, the course itself?
DF: With most races, the preparation is a big part of it, before you’ve even shown up for the teams and the drivers. It’s all the things you just mentioned. A person has to do their job, have good teammates and you’ve got to have a little bit of luck. We talk about all of these things, but the element of luck is still there. You can’t ignore it.
DIS: How would you go about preparing for this race, in particular?
DF: As far as the team is, the way they prepare the car. It’s just months of preparation, making sure that thing is as good as it can be. Listen, generally they change the engine on Friday. That’s the first time it’s running. I’ve been in a situation here before where they changed the engine on Friday and there was a problem. We had to go back to the original engine; that was pretty scary time.
But as far as the driver, by this point in the season I was well into my IndyCar training, you know, and all that sort of stuff. You hydrate, and the weeks leading up to it you eat the right stuff and all that. I remember the last two years when I was driving and Jamie [McMurray] and Max [Papis] would say “Hey, let’s go to this place,” and they take you to some place with some really, really good tasting food that wasn’t very good for you. But you try and look after yourself, you get yourself in the best physical shape you can be.
DIS: Overall, how do you think this event has changed since you last raced in it?
DF: My first year was ’05, so it was already the Daytona Prototype era. I think it has become more of a sprint race. Again, there’s less issues with the cars. When the series’ first got together again I think that was a big plus.
The thing that’s kind of reared its head is the balance of performance in all forms really. The prototypes, the GTs, it’s just such a minefield. I never enjoyed that bit. I never enjoyed being on the losing end of it, and when you were on the winning end of it you sometimes felt like maybe you had a leg up on the opposition. It just didn’t ever sit right. I understand why it’s there in some ways, but that was one thing I didn’t enjoy. The sprint aspect of the race, I like that fact that you’re just flat out, from green flag to checkered
DIS: Have you been here since the new stadium was built? Have you had a chance to check it out yet? What are your thoughts?
DF: There was a lot of money spent, it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful stadium, they’ve done a great job with it and it looks good. You know what looked good is the fact that the crowd was good. That’s the biggest crowd I’ve seen here for a Rolex 24. The stands were – there were a lot of people in there, all the way down to NASCAR Turn 1. I like that, it was great to see. Sports car racing is going in the right direction.
DIS: It’s been a little over three years since you retired. What have you kept busy with since? What’s it like to come to race day like this and not being getting behind the wheel?
DF: I’m used to it, I don’t know about comfortable. You know I’m busy because I work with the Ganassi team with IndyCar as an advisor, so I do a lot of tests, a lot of the races. Formula year, I do the commentary for that, so I travel all around with that; worked with Acura and Honda on the new NSX; good with TV back in the UK so I’m busy. I’ve got more jobs now, I’m busier than I ever was, so that keeps me honest.
As far as coming back here? It’s funny, when I go to IndyCar races, I think there are three times - Dixon and I were talking about this two days ago - there are three times where I’ve thought “oh man, I’m going to have a blast in that today,” but generally I don’t have any interest in doing it because the level of commitment required just to drive the thing… it’s just on a different scale. It used to feel normal, but it just doesn’t feel normal to do that anymore.
Here is a little different. I miss this one, because there was less pressure on and the cars were at, I guess, a slightly lower level of performance so it seems more almost more attainable. I feel like I could jump in the car just now and get after it. This morning the drivers’ meeting was really weird. I was sitting there and I was looking at it and my mind went to automatic pilot. I was analyzing what Beaux Barfield was saying and thinking of what questions did I want to ask and I suddenly thought, “What are you doing? You’re not driving, shut it off.”
DIS: There is so much time and preparation that goes into modern racecars and so much technology under the hood, how essential is it to have a skilled driver behind the wheel?
The driver skill is as important as ever. The one skill that the driver had, in my opinion, back in the – I always go back to the 1970’s Porsches, when the 917k’s were running around here one of the skills the driver had to have was the ability to look after the equipment, as well as go fast. Now you don’t have to have that so much. You don’t have to know how to heel-and-toe perfectly or be careful on the upshift, it’s all paddles! That’s maybe one skill that’s slightly lost, but as far as driving quickly, I think it’s as difficult as it ever was.
Don’t miss out when racing returns to Daytona International Speedway on February 18 with Speedweeks 2017 providing nearly two weeks of on-track action with leading up to the 59th running of the Great American Race – the DAYTONA 500 – on February 26. Secure your seat today!