Dario humble as generation's best

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gazing out at the vast, empty grandstands on Monday, with two hours' sleep after a party that lasted almost until dawn celebrating his third Indy 500 win, Dario Franchitti clearly felt the gravity of the hallowed ground, and a sadness for "a whole generation of us."

Call them the Lost Generation of Indy car drivers, who in their primes were not allowed to compete here much, if at all, due to the devastating civil war in open-wheel racing that began in 1996 and wasn't entirely settled until 2008.

"It's a real shame," Franchitti said. "It's a real shame. But the good news is we're together again and we've got one IndyCar series, and we're in a lot better position than we were in four years ago."

That's relative, of course. This race, for which Franchitti's appreciation deepens every year now, had its reputation gutted by the absence of the stars, the real talent of the time.

"Guys like Greg Moore," Franchitti said of his still-mourned teammate at Team Green in the CART series. The promising, effervescent young Canadian was killed at Fontana, Calif., in 1999. "He tested here, but he never got to race here."

Then there was Jimmy Vasser, who won the CART championship in the first season of total separation, '96.

"Jimmy Vasser got to race here a little bit, but not anywhere near …"

Maybe most of all, "Zanardi never raced here."

Allesandro Zanardi, called "Alex" in North America while he was winning two CART championships in the '90s, brought a type of victory celebration never before seen in major American racing: burnouts and doughnuts.

Whenever you see a Jimmie Johnson or a Kyle Busch send the tire smoke billowing, know that nobody in NASCAR had heard or even thought of that before Zanardi came to the U.S.

After mediocre seasons in Formula One, Zanardi returned to CART in 2001 but lost his legs in a crash during a race in Germany.

Indy never knew his flamboyance of manner and driving style.

Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy lost the primes of their careers in exile from Indy, came back in twilight, ran a few times, but never won the 500.

Franchitti, at 39, has rebuilt youthful promise as well as anyone who lost years here. Still, you have to wonder: Had he not lost five years during the CART boycott, then missed the 500 of 2003 with injuries, then missed in '08 on a misbegotten venture into NASCAR …

Might we be talking about a four-time Indy winner today? The first foreign driver to move alongside A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears?

Hell, even a five-time winner, as superbly as Franchitti deals with this place now?

"Let's just enjoy this third one," he said in almost a whisper, and a reverent one at that.

So paradoxical, he reckoned, the way awe of Indy works.

"When you come here as a rookie," he said, "you're like, 'yeah, yeah, whatever.' And the more you do this race, the worse it gets. It's not like with experience you sort of calm down.

"The more you do it, the more it means to you. The more the stress. The more the emotion. So it's kind of in reverse. You've almost got to work harder to focus and control your emotions, because of everything that it means."

He and his Ganassi team had, of course, made it look easy on Sunday, even after they fell behind early when Franchitti was wrecked in the pits … even as he and teammate Scott Dixon swapped the lead a dozen times as they dominated the late stages … even as Takuma Sato went spinning, almost taking Franchitti out with him, after Sato's ferocious challenge in the first turn of the last lap …

The 96th Indy 500 had a record 35 lead changes among 10 drivers, and was, plain and simple, a good race from flag to flag.

"The majority of our races are like that," Franchitti said of the IndyCar series. "Obviously, the Indianapolis 500, there's so many eyeballs on it."

Maybe that's another step in the long climb out of the crater for American open-wheel racing.

And, of Indy's Lost Generation, one has come home from the war, to rebuild at least something of what might have been.