Scotland’s Dario Franchitti has spent the bulk of his professional motorsports career as a champion – a driver competitors look to with respect and a certain amount of fear. This season the respect is still there, but Franchitti, a master of open wheel competition, is merely a novice in stock car racing.
This will be his first Sprint Cup Series tour (he’ll be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing), and even he realizes the learning curve will be steep.
“It’s difficult,” Franchitti says. “I can’t describe how different it feels. You’re going so quickly, like 210 pretty much at the end of the straight here. You’re braking really, really hard. As I get to the midpoint of the corner, you feel that lack of grip, the weight of the car, then from then on, you know, it’s pretty difficult. I find although the speeds are slower, to get to the limit in the stock car is pretty difficult. It’s fun, though, it really is, to drive a track like this in one of these cars. I’m really enjoying it.”
Franchitti is the latest international star to cast his lot with NASCAR. Last season it was Juan Montoya who broke into the series, earning Rookie of the Year honors despite having to undergo on-the-job training.
Franchitti, better known to American audiences as the husband of actress Ashley Judd, is in for a similar trial by fire.
Franchitti says he has admired NASCAR from afar for years, and after seeing the level of competition – as well as some of his peers make the switch – it became even more intriguing. He says he has marveled for years at the success of two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
“I think that Jimmie Johnson is a topic of conversation amongst a lot of guys,” he says. “I’m a huge NASCAR fan, have been for a long time, so I watched with interest what he’s done since he came into the sport. I thought it was impressive watching from my bus at IndyCar races.” Now, having driven a stock car himself, he realizes the extent of Johnson’s achievements. “There’s some very, very impressive guys out there,” he says.
Franchitti also admits that switching from open wheel to stock cars is not just changing rides, but basically changing sports.
“I think the biggest challenge is finding the limits of the car, not overdriving the car, not underdriving the car, driving the car free enough that it’s going to be quick over a long run, getting used to the compromises of driving the car,” he explains. “And that’s before you even go into the race and get used to the new style of racing. How physical the races are, as far as people bumping into each other, that kind of stuff.”
Franchitti won the IRL championship a year ago and picked up more than $7 million in earnings while in the series. Now he is starting over in what has become the premiere form of motorsports in the world.
Following the success of Montoya, he expects, the exodus of drivers from other series will continue.
As for himself, he doesn’t have rigid expectations, he says. “I want to do a good job, do my best job week in, week out. As Juan said to me, ‘Some weeks are going to be good, some weeks are going to be terrible.’ That’s just something I have to prepare myself for.”
Franchitti is driving a Dodge with Montoya and Reed Sorenson serving as teammates.
He says both have been extremely helpful in his adjustment.
“I said to Chip, ‘Hey, don’t tell Juan this, but he’s been really helpful.’ No, he has.
He’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this, why don’t you try that.’
“Talking to the crew chief and the engineers on the team, they’ll say, ‘You’re exactly where [Montoya] was last year at this point with your setup. It will take you a while to migrate maybe towards more of a traditional setup. Reed is there with a more traditional view, having coming up the route he did. Both have been extremely cool.”
New Look for Rusty Wallace Racing
Rusty Wallace has traded in driving for talking about driving in the broadcast booth, but he remains very much a part of the sport as head of Rusty Wallace Racing.
This season RWR features Steve Wallace, David Stremme and Chase Austin, and veteran crew chief Harold Holly has also come aboard.
The team is getting its engines from RCR/DEI in 2008 and this season competes in Chevrolets.
“We’ve totally restructured our organization,” Steve Wallace says. “It’s night and day – just like a light switch, on and off. It’s a lot better feeling when you go into the shop and all the cars are brand-new. It’s just a lot better deal there. And with Harold Holly and all the new engineers and new shock guys, we’re going to be a lot faster and a lot more consistent.”
Holly has crewed in both of NASCAR’s top two series. He was the crew chief for Jeff Green from 1999-2001 in what is now known as the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where they found 13 wins.
Steve Wallace says the new team structure has also been beneficial.
“Any time you can double your knowledge, it’s a lot more beneficial,” he says. “And David is one of my good friends.”
Steve Wallace and Stremme come from a similar short-track background. Like Rusty Wallace, Stremme got his start racing ASA in the Midwest.
“Any short track, whether it’s dirt or asphalt, I want to race,” Stremme says. “I try to make it to go see the local racers and just enjoy myself. I have a hard time lying on the beach for four days doing nothing.”
Stremme was the NASCAR support series Rookie of the Year in 2003 and drove in 2007 for Chip Ganassi Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.