If ever there was a race that Dario Franchitti would love to compete in, it’s the upcoming inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on August 8.
Franchitti’s career was outstanding, including winning the IndyCar championship four straight years (2007 through 2010) and the Indianapolis 500 three times (2007, 2010 and 2012).
Unfortunately, his career was cut short due to injury, stemming from a horrific crash in Houston late in the 2013 season.
But Nashville is a special place for the Scottish-born driver. He lived in Music City for several years during his racing career with his former wife, actress Ashley Judd. It’s also where he spent most of his time recovering from arguably the worst crash of his career, having sustained a career-ending spinal fracture, concussion and broken ankle.
While Franchitti, 48, doesn’t live in Nashville any more, he’s very excited about the upcoming race, looking upon it as somewhat of a homecoming for him.
“I think Nashville’s changed a lot since I lived there, it’s grown incredibly,” Franchitti said. “When I was there earlier this year, I was shocked. From the moment you get to the airport, just the suburbs going out has become a much bigger city. It’s got a big passion for cars.
“I think you tie those two together, it’s become a destination as well. All kinds of weekend things. From all over the world, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to Nashville for a week, for our bachelor party,’ all that sort of stuff. It’s become that destination as well.
“When you tie in the music side of things, which I think (Big Machine CEO) Scott Borchetta is able to do better than anybody because he’s a racing nut, obviously he’s got massive horsepower in the music business, when you tie those things together, it’s just a win-win. I think it’s going to be a tremendous event.”
Since retiring, Franchitti has spent the last several years serving as a driving coach for Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar operation, with special emphasis on mentoring and instructing young CGR drivers such as Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson, not to mention seven-time NASCAR Cup champion—but also 45-year-old IndyCar rookie—Jimmie Johnson.
And Franchitti is always available to help the team’s leader, Scott Dixon. But with six IndyCar championships to his credit, there’s not all that much Dixon needs to learn from Franchitti.
Rather, Franchitti serves as more of a sounding board to Dixon.
“Even Scott sometimes, as successful as Scott has been, there’s things I see and I would make a suggestion, ‘Have you tried this? Have you thought about that?’” Franchitti said.
Franchitti and Palou were on an IndyCar conference call Tuesday as a prelude to the inaugural street race in downtown Nashville. If things go the way organizers and IndyCar officials hope, it could be one of the biggest races the series has seen in at least the last 10 years (not including the Indy 500).
And even though he won’t be driving in it, Franchitti will still play a big part in the race, being announced Tuesday as the event’s grand marshal, including giving the command for drivers to start their engines.
“I think it’s going to be phenomenal,” Franchitti said. “We had some great races out on the oval for years at Nashville (Superspeedway, where the series ran from 2001 through 2008). To bring it downtown, a lot of people have been trying for a long time to make it happen.
“Yeah, it’s going to be really exciting. When Scott Borchetta called me, said, Would you be the grand marshal, I said, ‘absolutely.’ I think it’s terrific to do that, to bring IndyCar back to Tennessee, back to Nashville. Downtown location. Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Obviously still got my job with Chip Ganassi Racing to do over the weekend as well. Yeah, I’m excited to go to Nashville.”
Franchitti’s coaching has served CGR well over the years, particularly for Palou, a 24-year-old native of Spain. The sophomore IndyCar driver is currently atop the series’ standings, including earning two wins and six overall podium finishes in the season’s first 10 races.
“It’s not a case of telling Alex what to do,” Franchitti said of his coaching style or approach with Palou. “I think with all the drivers I work with and worked with, you make suggestions, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you tried that?’ That could be a driving technique, a setup change, it could be a mental thing of some drivers sometimes struggle mentally with getting the best performance, whatever.
“Each driver’s different. Each week’s a little bit different. That’s part of the excitement I guess of the job.”
While Palou is grateful to have such a legendary driver as Franchitti in his corner, he also is lighthearted about it – in a positive way.
“He’s like all the time telling me the bad stuff I’m doing,” Palou said, good-naturedly joking about Franchitti. “No, to be honest it’s super good, like having somebody that’s been so successful, that he’s able to see what the drivers feel and also what the engineers need to know from the driver.
“It’s amazing having somebody up there like he is able to go to the corners, he’s able to see the data, tell me, ‘Hey, this is the difference between Scott and you or Marcus and you, even Jimmie.’ It’s been good fun, a big help. Yeah, I’m just learning a lot from all these guys.”
Franchitti has been given much of the credit for Palou’s development since he signed with CGR before the season, having spent his rookie campaign last year with Dale Coyne with Team Goh Racing.
“I’d love to (take credit for Palou’s success), but I think he’s worked so hard, him, the whole 10 car team,” Franchitti demurred when asked if he indeed would take much of the credit for Palou’s development. “They’ve just really worked hard from the first race.
“One of our first conversations, Alex and I, (I said) ‘Listen now, you’re now in a team that in the pit stops and the strategy, they’re going to help you to win races so you don’t have to worry about driving 105 percent.’ He shows up in (the season opener at) Barber and wins. I’m like, ‘Hmm, okay, he got that message loud and clear straightaway. He’s a fast learner.’
“We thought he was good when we signed him. He’s even better than that. He’s a hard worker. Behind that very nice, polite exterior, he’s just tough as anything, man. … We, me, all of us at Chip Ganassi Racing, are delighted he’s driving the No. 10 car.”
Ironically, the No. 10 car is also the same number of the car Franchitti drove during his hugely successful tenure with CGR.
In addition to Palou and Ericsson, Franchitti is spending a significant time with Johnson. Admittedly, Johnson has struggled at times this season while running only street and road course events.
To date, Johnson’s best finish has been 19th, in the season opener at Birmingham, Alabama. He’s spun several times in the seven races he’s competed in, but that’s actually a positive thing, Franchitti insists.
“(Johnson’s) doing really well,” Franchitti said. “He had a lot of spins, and that’s because of what was happening there. His bravery was going up during the tire run during the race, as the tire grip wear was going down, as they wore. Those two are the going in the opposite direction from each other.
“That’s why these spins happen, he’s constantly pushing the limits, pushing himself. His ultimate lap time is right there. We’re getting up to speed a bit more, what happens when the tires go off, how to continue to drive quickly.
“He’s not only learning, he’s trying to forget two decades of how to drive a stock car. As I found out when I went to drive a stock car, what works in IndyCar doesn’t work in a stock car and vice versa.
“Yeah, he’s got a very difficult job, but he’s made massive progress. Yeah, I think he’s going to continue. Obviously he’s going to continue to get better, to start scoring more and more better results.”
The Nashville event will kick off the final six races of the season for the series.
The August 8 race will be a blank slate for all drivers entered. Given that it’s the first time the series has raced on the streets of Nashville, no one has a true advantage. A guy like Palou has just as much chance of winning as Dixon or suburban Nashville native Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe or Conor Daly, or even someone like first-year IndyCar drivers Scott McLaughlin or Romain Grosjean.
Any way you slice it, this is going to be a race to remember for the series. The only thing that could put a damper on things is if it rains (hush, let’s not jinx it, right?).
And going forward, Palou will only feel more and more pressure as he tries to remain No. 1 in the standings. But Franchitti is confident his young charge can handle anything that is thrown at him.
“No, honestly, you can’t teach that,” Franchitti said of how Palou handles pressure. “You can help with experience and what works for you. I can help, ‘Okay, for me this worked.’ You have to have that mental toughness. Alex has got it.
“We see every race what we need to do going into it. We’ve already had discussions about championships, how you run for them. But he’s got the mental toughness. That’s step one. I’m not sure you can really teach that either.
“As Chip calls it: ‘You’re either a Sunday driver or you’re not.’ I think with Alex we have a Sunday driver.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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