The following story is abridged from an article originally appearing in the July issue of
RACER magazine. To buy a back issue, click here.
Dario Franchitti chuckles at the mental image. If three of IndyCar racing’s best drivers did their best work on ice skates, what kind of skater would Franchitti be? If you ask the other two, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, they don’t hesitate in their rink-bound assessment of their opponent and friend. Dario’s a figure skater, no doubt. Not an average figure skater, either. A gold medalist – precise, technical, graceful and able to nail the triple axel without a grunt or a rise in blood pressure.
Where, then, would Kanaan and Dixon fit? Easy. On a stout hockey team, with Kanaan as the fierce defender who can knock people down but still bull his way to the net and score, and with Dixon as the fast-skating center with superb natural ability who infuses Kanaan’s ferocity with Franchitti’s elegance. If our trio is indeed on skates, then Kanaan is Bobby Orr, Dixon is Wayne Gretzky and Franchitti is Brian Boitano. They all giggle at the last one, but it’s every bit as much a compliment as Orr and Gretzky. Boitano, you’ll recall, changed the face of Olympic skating in the late 1980s by combining intricate athletics with exacting technique.
Kanaan sees where this is going. “If it were a beauty contest, Dario would win by far,” he says. “It’s beautiful to watch the guy drive a racecar. It doesn’t appear to be aggressive. He’s going very fast, but it almost looks like he’s going slow. When you watch ‘Dixie’ and I, we’re all over the map. Our hands are everywhere, locking wheels, hitting the stops, just flailing away. Rarely do you ever see Dario do that.”
The two most recent champions have turned their new role as teammates into a friendship, with Franchitti quick to respond to Dixon’s sarcastic wit. “On a road course, Scott hates understeer,” Franchitti says. “If the car has understeer, he calls it a death plow. He’ll come in and get out of the car and say, ‘If you can get the car so it’s not a death plow, I’ll be OK.’ He does not like understeer.”
Dario Franchitti is the refined one. His style is effortless to the point of being pretty, but he’ll be the first to tell you it’s neither. During his drive to victory in Long Beach, the in-car cameras on Franchitti’s car showed little wasted motion, making it appear as if he was breezing down the freeway with Coltrane on the iPod and a latte in the cupholder. If only it had been that easy.
“When we’ve got the car doing what I want it to do, and I watch the in-car after the race, it does look easy – but it’s not,” he says. “That’s done me a disservice over the years. It doesn’t appear to be exciting because it’s totally under control. The exciting part for me is that we’ve done our homework and gotten the car to be so good that it appears to be easy to drive.”
The real trick? An innate ability to remain calm when everything around him is bedlam. “Dario is a very calm person,” Kanaan says. “He’s very focused on what he needs. He’s precise. Look at what he did in Long Beach. He was like, ‘I’ll drive fast if I need to.’ That’s Dario. He was above the grid. He was above all 22 cars by miles, but he didn’t apply it unless he had to. He’s always a threat, and it’s because he’s so smart and calm and refined in the way he goes about it.”
So, about that question to which we wanted an answer? Which of you is the best? Silence – followed by darting glances and slow-starting sentences. Certainly none of them is going to claim he’s the best but, perhaps inevitably, nobody is going to admit one of the others is king.
“We won’t pick whether one is better,” Kanaan says, hiding a smile, “but we will say we get to the same place in entirely different ways.”
Way to skate out of it.