It still stands on desolate ground along Interstate 25, far from civilization, framed by sage and wind and the Rocky Mountains off in the distance. No longer a spectator facility, Pikes Peak International Raceway seats 10 percent of the number of spectators it did back in the day, back when it played a role in shaping and defining one of the great racers of our time. It's a participant facility now, a crisp one-mile oval containing a 1.3-mile road course and quarter-mile oval, a place that awakens in the summer for SCCA club events, an occasional autocross and (irony of ironies) an endurance race for junkyard beaters held by the delightfully named ChumpCar World Series.
In 2004, though, the PPIR mile was conquered by a driver just beginning to master his low-grip skills on short ovals. He was learning to adapt, a capacity to shape-shift that eventually became his modus operandi. However unglamorous his win at Pikes Peak on Aug. 22, 2004, it changed Dario Franchitti's path, his destiny and his impact on American open-wheel racing. That's the day when Franchitti became a single-name driver – Dario. The king of adaptation, compromise and recovery. One of the best in history, capable of winning on any track, in any series, under any circumstance. It turned Dario toward eventual comparison with the rest of the first-namers in the genre – Mario, A.J., Michael, Big Al, Uncle Bobby, Little Al, P.T. and Seabass.
That win at PPIR wasn't a spectacular, emotion-laded victory, nor was it noticed much beyond the borders of El Paso County. Frankly, among Franchitti's 30 wins during his 15 years on the American scene, it barely rates. Its significance lies in the periphery and circumstance. The year before, Franchitti had followed team owner Michael Andretti from Champ Car to the Indy Racing League, a move not celebrated – but perhaps necessary for survival – within the newly renamed Andretti Green Racing. Instead of alluring events like Surfers Paradise and Long Beach, Franchitti found himself at a dusty little oval beside a highway between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The task was as stark as the surroundings: Adapt or fade away and never be heard of again.
More than seven years after that victory, we celebrate Dario Franchitti and his accomplishments and, in doing so, compare him with the eight drivers ahead of him on the list of career victories. He's won four championships, two Indy 500s and immeasurable respect. He's bearing down on Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais, who are tied with 31 wins. Then it's Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser. Above them are only Al Unser Sr., Michael and Mario Andretti, and A.J. Foyt. Read that list to Franchitti and he chuckles uncomfortably.
“It almost doesn't register,” he says. “When I look at those names, I don't know what to think. The guys on that list who I raced against, like Michael and Al Jr., I have tremendous respect for. The others on that list who I didn't race against are really on the pedestal to me. The numbers don't lie, but those guys are my heroes. Mears said it best when he said, ‘If you think you deserve to be ranked with your heroes, you don't deserve to be ranked with your heroes.' I don't see myself in that company. I'm proud my numbers are up there, but I'll never feel like I deserve to be there.”
Mears knows the feeling. “I never liked being compared to those guys when I was racing,” he says. “But Dario is right up there with them, without a doubt. He couldn't have won the number of races he has without being there.”
To understand the dynamic of Pikes Peak '04 on Franchitti's career, one needs to understand Pikes Peak '03. A motorcycle crash caused him to miss three races in '03, including the Indy 500. Still sore, he returned for Pikes Peak – not a fun place to race while recovering from a back injury – and finished fourth. Afterward, he opted for surgery and sat out the rest of the season. Pikes Peak '04, then, is the conquering of Pikes Peak '03 – the overcoming of pain, the facing of demons, the power of determination. And the very definition of adaptation.
“An accident is an accident,” Mears explains. “It doesn't matter if it's on the racetrack or some other kind of accident – it's about getting back on the horse as soon as possible. When my wheel came off during qualifying at Indy in 1991, I had no choice but to get back on track and be on the limit. My next lap was the fastest run of the month. I had to do that for two reasons: for my own confidence and to show the team that there's no problem here. We were back up and running.
“Situations like that make the difference between the top racers and the rest. Dario has been able to do that throughout his career. It's part of what defines him.”