Dario Franchitti talks business, IndyCar’s future, and the crash that ended his racing career
FORTUNE — On Monday night, news broke that four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti will drive the pace car at this year’s Indianapolis 500 on May 25.
That’s a pretty fast turnaround considering that Franchitti was in a gruesome crash just last fall that ended his racing career. The wreck, which happened Oct. 6 at the Houston Grand Prix, left Franchitti with a broken back, broken ankle, and concussion. A month later Franchitti announced that based on the advice of his doctors, he would retire from racing.
Now upright and mobile, but still walking with a limp, Franchitti stopped by the Fortune offices on Tuesday to talk about everything from the crash to his new role in the sport to his thoughts on safety.
Fortune: How are you feeling?
Dario Franchitti: I’m all right. Tired. Right now I get tired more easily, since I had a brain injury. But I’m generally pretty good.
Do you watch what’s happening in football, too, with head-injury concerns?
Literally I was just talking about that and about the NFL. [Former Indy 500 driver] Bill Simpson has developed a safer helmet for NFL players. It’s technology we’ve been using for years. They’re basically bringing the NFL helmet up to the racing standards.
It’s funny, I sent the guy from Arai, who makes my helmets, an email the other day just thanking him for the protection. If you look at my helmet, there’s not a mark on it. It shows there was no actual impact, it was just the spin that caused my brain injury.
Did you see the movie Rush, about Formula One drivers and about Nicki Lauda and his horrible crash?
Of course. It was great, wasn’t it? His helmet came off when he crashed, which is where some of the issue came from. He’s something else, Nicki Lauda. He was a lucky boy. I was at an awards ceremony in December, the first public thing I did after the accident. And up on stage, Lauda got an award right before me. The guy who played him [Daniel Bruhl] appeared on a video screen, and at the end of it he suddenly switches into his Lauda accent, and it was brilliant. He’s such a good mimic of him.
Had you ever been in a worse wreck than this?
No, I had been in accidents but this was the first one with multiple injuries. So that scene in the movie, when Lauda is coming back, I kind of related to that from times in the past, but I didn’t have that this time because it pretty quickly became apparent that there wasn’t going to be a comeback. [He laughs.]
Has that been frustrating?
Yeah, it was, and in some ways a little bit it is.
So what happens next?
I’ve always had one eye on what happens when this stops, but no more than that. Because you’ve got to focus so hard on what you’re doing. To be competitive and be in a position to win, you’ve got to focus. So I’ve always tried that balancing act.
I’ve been very lucky to have Jackie Stewart [a three-time Formula One world champion and, like Franchitti, a Brit from Scotland] as a mentor since I was 16 years old. He’s always led by example. He stopped driving when he was 31 and had a much more successful career out of the car. He transitioned to business and made lots of money, and still today is sought after for all kinds of things. Jackie is always there to give me advice and has been since the accident.
But for now, I’m continuing to work with the Chip Ganassi team. I’m still doing things with Target (TGT), still doing the things I did as a driver with them, along with Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. But now I’m also a team advisor, so I talk to the drivers about different aspects, if there’s something I can help them with. I’m working with the engineers and the drivers together to make sure that relationship is all it could be to get maximum performance out of the car. That’s sort of the main thing right now. That’ll keep me busy. I still have endorsement deals too, like with TW Steel watches. Apart from that, I’m just enjoying the fact that I have a little bit of time now to … [breathes a big sigh].
Does Jackie encourage you to think beyond endorsements, to consider business partnerships or starting anything of your own?
Well, we’ve talked about that a little. But you have to be careful. If you go into business it has to be with people you trust. And at the same time, I think going into a business you understand is crucial — work within your skill set. I would never — I should never say never, I guess — but I would never think of owning a racing team because chasing the sponsorship dollars would be very, very difficult for me. I think I’m in the perfect position because Chip [Ganassi] has spent 25 years building this unbelievable team of people. And his people take care of that side of things, while I get to work within my strengths, which is the racing side of things, and the strategy side. Working with him and for him, and with all the guys on the team, has been really amazing.
Was that a weird adjustment? Or did you just seamlessly go from active team member/driver to advisor/coach?
Well, it’s a work in progress. Because they’ve never done this before — had a driver immediately become an advisor. As a driver, the whole thing revolves around you and your teammates. So my job has gone from it all revolving around me to being part of the support team that helps these guys be as successful as they can. That’s been easier than I thought, because the team is a “no bullshit” organization. As drivers, we were never a big-drama bunch of people. So it wasn’t the case that these guys put you on a pedestal. You were one of the boys, and you’re still one of the boys now in this new role. So I’m finding my feet, finding what works. But the good news is it’s the same bunch of guys I worked with for five years. So if someone has a question, there’s no awkward moment. The communication is something we do very well.
You’re also driving the pace car this year. Does that mean you’re capable of getting back behind the wheel after all?
Well, I’m capable of driving the pace car. That’s 100 mph average speed. To get in an IndyCar and do 225, or 230 mph is slightly different. The Chevrolet guys called me up to see if I’d be interested. I said, “Are you kidding me? I’d love to.” I had driven a Honda (HMC) almost my whole IndyCar career and actually competed against the Chevrolet guys. Then the [Ganassi] team this year swapped to Chevrolet. So the fact that the Chevrolet guys asked me to do it even though I had driven Hondas my whole career, I thought that was a really nice gesture. I was blown away by that. I’ll be driving a Z/28 Camaro, and it hauls ass. It’s fast. I tested it last week, and it was good fun.
Do you see a change in global interest in racing? There are definitely still NASCAR people and then there are IndyCar people; what do you see happening with racing fans at large?
I think the movies help — we had the animated film Turbo, and Rush came out. There was a documentary about safety in Formula One called 1. And I think all that has helped. IndyCar went through a really tough time. [In 1996 the sport split into two series: CART, or Championship Auto Racing Teams, and IRL, the Indy Racing League.] In 2008 they finally put their egos away and formed one series, IndyCar. Since then they’ve been building back up, and they’re still doing that. Race crowds, they’re pretty good. TV numbers are not bad, but could certainly use a boost. So, is it better than it was two years ago? Yes. Does it still have a long way to go? Absolutely. But there are a lot of positives. This year ABC will be broadcasting all three qualifying weekends. That’s a big deal for IndyCar.
I think some of it is promotion. I mean, ultimately I’m no expert, my job is to drive the car. Or, was to drive the car. But I think the key is better promotion. The on-track stuff is so spectacular. The speed, the noise. That part is not an issue. It’s not like you have to create a way to make that more interesting.
It sounds like it’s the inverse of the issue that the NFL, NBA, and others have now, which is that they need to make the in-stadium experience better so that people will keep coming instead of watching at home.
Exactly right. And it’s not a criticism of TV, but TV does not do the speed and the noise justice. When you see an IndyCar in the flesh at Indianapolis, see it coming through turn one, I still stand there and say, “I want to do this?!” On TV you can’t see that.
Do you know about Formula E, the all-electric racing series that will start in September?
I’m involved with that. I think it’s going to be pretty cool. And it’s going to be interesting to see where it leads. Fully electric cars for the first time. We’ll see what happens with it. The venues look pretty spectacular. Although electric cars don’t make the same noise. They kind of make a whine. For me, a big part of the experience is the noise.
Do you remember the sound, or the feel, or anything, about your accident?
Oh, no. I lost about five weeks. The last thing I remember was a buddy’s wedding a few weeks before the accident. Don’t remember anything from the weekend of the race. No recollection.
So in a way, even though you’ve been forced into early retirement, is it a little bit of a relief? You made it, you had a great racing career and now it’s over and you’re alive.
I’m not sure “relief” is the right word. But I do know it could be a lot worse. With that accident, or with a number of the accidents I had, it could have been a lot worse.