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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Franchitti's new world
A switch from IRL to NASCAR continues a string of life changes for a southerner by way of Scotland.
By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published October 6, 2007
Dario Franchitti, left, speaks with former open-wheel rival and future Nextel Cup teammate Juan Pablo Montoya before Friday's ARCA race at Talladega. Franchitti made his stock car debut and finished 17th.
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dario Franchitti is a Scot of Italian descent, a former open wheel driver, the defending Indy Racing League and Indianapolis 500 champion. But he also lives in Nashville, is married to a rabid Kentucky Wildcats alum - actress Ashley Judd - and can discern the nuance of several different kinds of barbecue, thanks very much.
His credentials as a cultural Southerner are verifiable despite the brogue. His stock car credentials must soon be the same. He's got about four months before he assumes the wheel of the No. 40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in the Nextel Cup series.
So there he was on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway on Thursday morning, about to take his first stock car laps in an ARCA series practice. An official strolled to his car and leaned into the window.
"You speak English?"
Franchitti was flabbergasted, befuddled and amused as his crew howled over the team radio.
Assimilation won't come instantly, but everywhere the 34-year-old turns, he finds something that confirms his decision to find a new challenge with a team he has long wanted to join. Franchitti had been talking to members of his team, led by Clearwater native and crew chief Brian Pattie, on pit road earlier when he turned to find another ARCA driver waiting to greet him. The gruff man with the thick Southern accent had been born in Scotland in the same town where Franchitti last week attended the funeral of friend and World Rally Championship driver Colin McRae.
Small world, even in Talladega.
Prepping a former open wheel champion for a stock car career has seemingly become a yearly venture for Ganassi. Formula One driver and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya drove his first stock car race in this ARCA event last fall. Montoya won in the Cup and Busch Series this season, and his success as shown his former peers that NASCAR can be a viable option.
Montoya, delighted as mentor to a converted open wheel driver so soon after being the pupil, fussed over Franchitti's car, while his personal assistant, Gozalo "Gonzo" Mejia, provided the same squiring as he does for Montoya.
Ganassi, a former driver and demanding owner who has overhauled his entire Nextel Cup program and all but 2003 champion Scott Dixon from his IndyCar program the past few years, has an almost giddy affinity for drivers he deems supremely talented. He cooked Franchitti chicken in his motor home on Thursday morning as Montoya dispensed advice. It was the least Montoya could do after snatching the No. 42 from him.
When explaining how Montoya came to join his team last season(a cold call from the unhappy Formula One driver as Ganassi waited for his plane to taxi) the owner neglected to mention that months earlier he and Franchitti had orally agreed that Franchitti would join Ganassi's Cup team this season.
"I had to call (Franchitti) up and tell him, 'You know what, there is one guy on the planet that could've called and knocked you out of your seat'," Ganassi said.
Ganassi will free his No. 40 Dodge next season by releasing David Stremme. AGR co-owner Kim Green would not discuss terms of Franchitti's release months before his contract was to expire, but insisted, as did his former driver, that the departure had nothing to do with an apparent rift between Franchitti and co-owner Michael Andretti. So Franchitti got his NASCAR ride, his self-described "next challenge," after he won both of the IRL's top prizes in the same season.
"(Montoya) said something (Thursday) when we were joking around," Franchitti grinned. "He said, "Hey man, I bet you're glad I came over last year." I said, 'Absolutely, I got an Indy 500.' Everything happens for a reason, I guess."