Saturday, November 16, 2013

Franchitti's Abrupt Retirement Similar to Mears

Photo credit: Shawn Gritzmacher/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

I can’t say I was overly surprised that Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from racing earlier this week. His crash at Houston was frightening, worrisome and far too reminiscent of what transpired at Las Vegas two years ago.

Given Franchitti’s considerable achievements – three Indianapolis 500 victories and four series championships chief among them – and his age (40, comparatively old for an IndyCar driver), I wondered if he would at least think about hanging up the driving gloves.

As it turned out, the injuries suffered in the crash, particularly the concussion, left him no reasonable alternative.

“Medically, he has been told he'll make a 100 percent recovery,” said his car owner, Chip Ganassi, during a conference call this week. “He's been told by his doctors to not race again, basically.”

The abrupt nature of Franchitti’s retirement has some similarities to Rick Mears. In 1992, Mears, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion and going for a record fifth Indy win, had a malfunction coming out of Turn 1, spun and smacked the concrete wall (no SAFER barriers back then), his car scattering debris down the backstretch.

I remember being in the media center watching this transpire. The reporter from the Reading Eagle newspaper (Penske’s team was based in Reading, Pa., at the time) immediately picked up his phone and called back to (presumably) his editor, saying, “Rick just got upside down.”

Mears suffered injuries to his right wrist and left ankle in the mishap, then was involved in a wreck during the race, further injuring his tender wrist. This affected him the rest of the season, as he made only four starts in the last 12 races. Mears stepped out of the car for the last time when he withdrew during the Michigan 500 and he retired in December of that year – at age 41.

As with Mears, Franchitti’s retirement leaves open what more he could have achieved. He’s tied for eighth with Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais on the all-time wins list with 31 (two behind Scott Dixon and two ahead of Mears) and sixth in poles with 33 (one more than Michael Andretti and Will Power).

Perhaps the best indication of Franchitti’s consistency is he is tied for sixth with Bobby Rahal for top five finishes with 119.

The question now turns to who will take over the No. 10 Target car for Ganassi. The logical conclusion is that new addition Tony Kanaan slides into the seat, leaving a spot open on the team for someone else. Alex Tagliani’s name has surfaced, which is reasonable, given that he subbed for Franchitti in the season finale at California.

Another possibility is J.R. Hildebrand, fired by Panther after his disastrous Indianapolis 500. Based on absolutely nothing other than a guy sitting at a keyboard with access to the Internet, let’s throw in the name of Danica Patrick. Maybe she can duplicate Franchitti’s career arc of going from IndyCar to NASCAR back to IndyCar.