Dario Franchitti kept racing after the death of best friend Greg Moore. He continued on following the death of former teammate Dan Wheldon. He was eager to drive into his early 40s.
He won’t get the chance.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time IndyCar Series champion reluctantly and abruptly retired Thursday, saying doctors told him it would be too dangerous for him to keep racing because of injuries sustained in a harrowing crash last month.
"Racing has been my life for over 30 years, and it’s really tough to think that the driving side is now over," Franchitti said.
Franchitti fractured his spine, broke his right ankle and suffered a concussion in the Oct. 6 race at Houston, where his car made contact with Takuma Sato’s car on the last lap and sailed into a fence. Debris from the accident injured 13 fans in the grandstands and one IndyCar official.
The 40-year-old Franchitti underwent two surgeries on his ankle and recently returned home to Scotland to recover.
"One month removed from the crash, and based upon the expert advice of the doctors who have treated and assessed my head and spinal injuries post-accident, it is their best medical opinion that I must stop racing," Franchitti said. "They have made it very clear that the risks involved in further racing are too great and could be detrimental to my long term well-being. Based on this medical advice, I have no choice but to stop."
Franchitti did not use the word "retire" in a lengthy statement released through Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the team he joined in 2009 following a brief stint in NASCAR with Ganassi a year earlier.
Franchitti was unstoppable upon his return. Teamed with Ganassi and driving the feared red No. 10 Target car, Franchitti reeled off three consecutive championships and won 12 races upon his return. Two of the wins were Indy 500s.
He became the face of the series — Franchitti always had crossover appeal for IndyCar thanks to an 11-year marriage to actress Ashley Judd, which ended in January — because he was personable, well-spoken, popular in the paddock and passionate about the sport.
It resonated with fans and made Franchitti one of IndyCar’s all-time greats. His 31 victories are tied for eighth on the all-time list, and his 33 poles are sixth.
"Dario Franchitti has done so much for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, so it will be very disappointing to not see him in our cars next season," Ganassi said. "But simply put, Dario is a motorsports legend and will be sorely missed on the race track by everyone in the paddock and in the stands. His contributions to the sport of motor racing are too many to list, but I can tell you that they go way beyond what he has done on the track."
Franchitti’s last victory was the 2012 Indy 500, an emotional race that came seven months after defending winner Wheldon had been killed in a crash at Las Vegas. Franchitti battled teammate Scott Dixon over the final third of the race, jockeyed with Sato in the closing laps until Sato spun to bring out a caution, and led Dixon and Tony Kanaan across the finish line as three of Wheldon’s closest friends finished 1-2-3.
It was a poignant moment for Franchitti, who was too familiar with death in the sport he loved. Moore died in the 1999 season finale at Fontana, and Franchitti to this day remains deeply affected by the loss.
"I’ll forever look back on my time racing in CART and the IndyCar Series with fond memories and the relationships I’ve forged in the sport will last a lifetime," he said. "Hopefully in time, I’ll be able to continue in some off-track capacity with the IndyCar Series. I love open-wheel racing and I want to see it succeed. I’ll be working with Chip to see how I can stay involved with the team, and with all the amazing friends I’ve made over the years at Target.
"As my buddy Greg Moore would say, `See you up front.’"
Word of Franchitti’s decision spread quickly and drivers who never raced against him reacted with sadness.
"I think to have him around and on the circuit is far better than him going an injuring himself again against doctor’s advice," said Nigel Mansell, who was at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, for this weekend’s Formula One race.
But those closest to Franchitti were most affected.
Michael Andretti, who fielded Franchitti’s car for his first Indy 500 victory and first series championship in 2007, said he was shocked.
"I thought he had one good year left in him, and I know he wanted to race beyond IndyCar," Andretti said. "So that’s what I feel most bad about — he’s being parked by a doctor. He’s not going to be able to race the sports car stuff he had talked about. He won’t race with his brother (Marino), Le Mans, all the things he wanted to fulfill."
Dixon, who won the 2008 championship while Franchitti was in NASCAR, called his teammate a motorsports legend.
"More importantly, I can call him a best friend," Dixon said. "There are very few people that have achieved as much in auto racing and knowing Dario, he won’t go far as IndyCar racing is in his blood and I am sure he will stay involved somehow."
Franchitti had lured good friend and former Andretti teammate Kanaan to the Ganassi stable for 2014, an announcement that was made at Houston two days before Franchitti’s accident. Kanaan said he was counting the days "to be his teammate again," but is grateful Franchitti will still be in the IndyCar paddock next season.
"As much as it hurts not seeing him compete with me in IndyCar, I’m delighted that he got out of that accident and is still here with us," Kanaan said.
Franchitti could find a role with the Ganassi organization, or perhaps land in the television booth. Andretti suggested Franchitti would be a good fit as a consultant to a manufacturer.
For now, everyone was still trying to adjust to the idea of racing without Franchitti on the track.
"You pinch yourself everyday as firsthand you are witness to the talent, ability, work ethic and start-versus-win ratio of Dario Franchitti," Ganassi team manager Mike Hull said. "Having Dario represent all of us is what’s right about motorsports. His representation of the integrity of a true champion is what sets him apart."