IRL: No rust for Franchitti in return

Oh, the frustrations of the injured racing driver, having to remain behind the pit wall and watch, when he would give his eyeteeth to be on the track. For IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti, it's been a tough spring. After casting his lot with ...

Oh, the frustrations of the injured racing driver, having to remain behind the pit wall and watch, when he would give his eyeteeth to be on the track. For IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti, it's been a tough spring.

After casting his lot with start-up Indy Racing League team Andretti Green Racing, the Scot had a less than pleasurable start to the 2003 IndyCar Series season, taking seventh place at Homestead/Miami Speedway and finishing 16th at Phoenix International Raceway with gearbox problems. "After Homestead and Phoenix, we knew we needed to do more development work on the car."

Then came the visit home to Scotland before traveling to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and that, of course, was Dario's downfall. He was riding his motorcycle through the Scottish countryside with younger brother Marino when his bike suffered a mechanical failure, causing the rear tire to spin and, as he put it, "inviting me to leave."

Thrown from the machine into a prickly bush, Franchitti suffered a back injury that put him out of competition for 10 full weeks. "If my brother hadn't been with me, I probably would have been going faster and the injury would have likely been far more severe," Franchitti acknowledged.

Ten weeks is a long time out of a race car, although off-season can encompass two months or more. Being on the sideline for three races, Franchitti found it "very difficult to watch other guys driving my car. It was difficult to be at Indy with the car running so well and not be in it. But you just can't think of what might have been. It's just great to be back in the car."

While he was gone from the #27 Alpine/Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda there were three substitute drivers. First Dan Wheldon raced the #27 machine at Twin Ring Motegi, achieving seventh place from fifth starting slot.

Then Robby Gordon earned outside (3rd) front row starting position for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race while driving for Franchitti but DNF'd in 22nd place with an engine problem.

Bryan Herta took over the ride at Texas Motor Speedway and earned 5th from his 9th starting position, exclaiming he was the "fifth happiest guy here tonight."

Herta plainly expected to race again for Franchitti at Pikes Peak International Raceway this past weekend, but when orthopedist Dr. Terry Trammell pronounced Dario fully healed and the Indy Racing League's Dr. Henry Bock cleared him to race, Herta, who had set up the #27 Dallara/Honda for the Honda Indy 225 in a mid-May test session at the Fountain, CO track was looking for work again.

Much of the substitutes' success can be attributed to the synchronicity within Andretti Green Racing, as the team appears to have its priorities in order. Franchitti's relationship with team co-owner Michael Andretti has grown over the last few years when they were teammates at Team Green.

"We had a lot of respect for one another before but didn't know each other that well. This has been a difficult time for him, especially with my accident and the others that followed. He handles it very well and had some great input for the Pikes Peak race," where Franchitti finished fourth from 7th on the grid.

The downtime was tough for the Scot, who has 10 Champ Car victories on his resume along with 2nd place in CART's 1999 championship, where he finished in a dead heat with Juan Pablo Montoya. But rather than dwell on what could have been during his recuperation, Franchitti tried to keep a positive outlook. "At first my rehab wasn't much because I couldn't move the first three weeks," ensconced in a full back brace.

He was off to Austria for proper rehabilitation on the first of May, "to see how far I could push. Those were my building blocks." He returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first weekend of qualifying and watched Gordon earn third on the grid and Kanaan take second place in the traditional 33-car field. "Then I went back to Austria and worked to rebuild those back muscles" and other musculature lost in the accident.

"It was tough to watch other guys in my car. It was very difficult to be at Indy with the car running so well and think of what might have been. But now it's just great to be back," he admitted.

"I felt at home the moment I got back into the car on Saturday morning," he said. "It just felt right. Of course I was a bit nervous before practice started but I did 20.5 (seconds) my fourth lap out. I was interested in only one thing at that point and that was to get the car set up for the race as fast as possible."

Yes, there were musculature problems on his first outing. "It was hard on my left side muscles because we're always turning left" on the 1-mile Pikes Peak tri-oval. Dario didn't feel any extra pressure in his return to the IndyCar Series ranks. "No more than usual. I had a good car. Bryan gave us a very good baseline for the race."

"It was a pretty exciting race and it was hard out there. With the amount of downforce on these cars, it gave me a great workout. This is a good way to come back and it is something to build on." Showing a bit of rust, Franchitti gave way to Gil de Ferran on the final restart with six laps to go, when de Ferran dived beneath him for third place.

"We were ahead of Gil on the last restart and then we were blocked by some lapped cars," Dario said. "We ran side-by-side into Turn 1 and he pretty much ran me up into the gray. That's how I lost third." Dario wasn't terribly pleased by the Indy 500 winner's moves, but there's plenty of time left in the season to make his mark.

Teammate Tony Kanaan is leading the IndyCar Series standings, making Franchitti's goals for the balance of the 2003 season easy: "I want to win as many races as possible, score as many points as possible and make sure Tony wins the championship. I'll do my best, and we'll see what happens."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya