Dario Franchitti, four-time Indy Racing League (IRL) champion and three time Indianapolis 500 Champion, announced yesterday that he was retiring from racing at the age of 40.
In the announcement that shocked much of the racing world, Franchitti stated that he was following the advice of doctors who cautioned him that returning to racing and risking further injury once he recovered from injuries sustained at the Grand Prix of Houston last month would be detrimental to his long-term quality of life.
Franchitti sustained multiple injuries, including his third diagnosed concussion, during a last lap crash in the Grand Prix of Houston when his car made contact with another car and became airborne and rolled up into the catch fence before landing back on the track.
While the wreck was certainly bad most fans figured that Franchitti would heal and return to his big box retailer sponsored car next season.
After all, that is what drivers do they get back on that horse that threw them, or in this case the car with all that horsepower that they crashed in.
If someone had approached me that October afternoon when I was standing in Victory Circle and told me that I was witnessing the last race of Dario Franchitti’s career I would have likely said that they were crazy.
After all, Franchitti had wrecked his car before and returned. He even returned to the car after attending the funeral of one of his closest friends, Dan Wheldon, who was killed in the season finale last year in Las Vegas.
Racers put their lives on the line every time they strap into their cars and know deep down that each lap could be their last. That is just in their nature and is part of the formula that makes them who they are.
For years it has also been part of the formula for athletes in all professional sports to not show weakness or anything that suggests anything less than invincibility.
NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd once drove an entire race with his eyelids taped open following a wreck the previous week.
Countless football players through the years have played with broken bones and other ailments that would keep most anyone else confined to the couch at home.
Some athletes really do feel that they are invincible and others feel that showing any weakness or not getting right back into competition opens the door for someone to take their place.
Adding to the pressure are the fans who expect their star athletes to do all of this and more in the name of entertaining them.
But in recent years as more and more science has gone into studying the long term effects of people taking repeated hits to the head there have been a growing number of athletes who have quit at their prime to look at the big picture.
Just this year several NFL players have walked away from the game citing the risk to their future quality of life as the reason behind it.
Of course, it could be that with today’s athletes making more money than those in the past it is easier for them to walk away with productive years still left in their careers.
As one of the highest paid drivers in the Indy Car paddock Dario Franchitti certainly should not be hurting financially so walking away from the sport for him would not be the same as a driver who was scraping to get by from race to race.
But when one of the sports biggest stars and ambassadors walks away it is certainly worth noting.
I commend Dario Franchitti for taking a look at the big picture and walking away while he still has the ability to leave on his own terms. Were he to keep driving Dario Franchitti would be in more wrecks. That is just the nature of the sport.
Of course no one can say that the future wrecks would be any worse than his wreck in Houston but at the same time no one can say that they wouldn’t.
Speaking of the career ending wreck in Houston there will be people who continue to blame the track for it happening. And while there were certainly flaws in the track that resulted in last minute repairs the fact remains that cars can wreck even under the best of circumstances.
When the Grand Prix of Houston returns in June 2014 there will likely be a new track configuration and event organizers will have to take into account the feedback from teams regarding the issues with the track this year. But, one cannot and should not blame the track for ending Dario Franchitti’s racing career.
Two days prior to what turned out to be his career ending accident I was able to exchange pleasantries with Franchitti as he was driving around on his scooter along pit road. After wishing him good luck for the weekend we both went our separate ways.
Had I known then that it was his last weekend as a professional race car driver it is hard to say whether I would have handled the exchange any differently then just two professionals doing their jobs trackside.
What I do know is the sight of Dario Franchitti on pit road will be missed by fans and competitors alike as there is a certain weight and presence that one carries as a four-time champion.
That is not to say that Dario Franchitti carried himself in an arrogant manner. Quite the opposite in my observations I found him to be quite the gracious ambassador for the sport who did not mind stopping his scooter to say a few words with his fans.
Time will tell what the next chapter entails for Dario Franchitti and how much fan interaction that new chapter will include.
He could remain in the sport as a color commentator on the broadcasts or even as a team owner. Dario Franchitti could even join Mario Andretti and other past champions in promoting the sport around the world.
Of course Dario could just as easily move to a castle in Scotland next to Sir Sean Connery and they could look out over the land and swap stories of days gone by.
Whatever the future holds for Dario Franchitti he has earned the right to choose his path and he is going out on his terms while he still can and one definitely needs to respect that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to do some shopping at that big box retailer that adorns Dario’s car.
Copyright 2013 R. Anderson