INDIANAPOLIS -- I can't say I was surprised when I got the news that Dario Franchitti is retiring from auto racing, effective immediately.
I'm closer to Franchitti than anyone else among the current crop of Indy car drivers, so I suspected something was up when he was pretty much incommunicado in the five weeks since he was involved in a devastating last-lap crash in the Grand Prix of Houston.
At lunch today, a source told me the head injuries Franchitti suffered at Houston were more significant than reported and that he has been under the care of neurologists in Miami. The statement he released Thursday afternoon pretty much confirmed that.
"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 in the release. "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."
This is believed to be the fourth concussion Franchitti sustained over the past 15 years, and given the information that is coming to light out of the National Football League about repeated head injuries, clearly he had to confront tough questions about his future quality of life should he suffer another significant blow in a racing accident.
Franchitti has also endured a prior spinal fracture in a 2003 motorcycle accident as well as a broken pelvis and broken ankle in separate racing incidents a decade apart. When you take into account the fact that Franchitti lost his two best friends in Indy car accidents -- Greg Moore at California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway) in 1999 and Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011 -- the decision to walk away on his own terms is even more understandable.
He never achieved his goal of racing in Formula One, but at 40, with a record that includes 31 Indy car race wins, three victories in the Indianapolis 500 and four IndyCar Series championships, Franchitti can be proud of what he achieved in his driving career.
And anyone who knows him well knows that he will remain involved in the sport in some capacity.
"Racing has been my life for over 30 years, and it's really tough to think that the driving side is now over," he said in the release. "I was really looking forward to the 2014 season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, with a goal of winning a fourth Indianapolis 500 and a fifth IndyCar Series championship.
"Hopefully in time, I'll be able to continue in some off-track capacity with the IndyCar Series," he added. "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."
Franchitti's driving style reminded me of F1 great Alain Prost -- smooth and tidy, and not particularly quick looking until you saw the time on a stopwatch or a scoring monitor. In recent years, Franchitti became the modern-era master of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which makes even more sense when you factor in his genuine love and fascination for the history of the Indianapolis 500 and motorsports in general.
But I personally appreciate Franchitti even more as a human being than a race car driver.
Despite being one of the sport's most successful champions, despite being married to a high-profile movie star, he remained humble and approachable by fans and media.
A couple of years ago, when my 7-year-old son finally met his favorite driver, I think Dario was more excited than Patrick was.
I've seen a lot of drivers come and go during my 21-year career covering Indy car racing, and none have affected me in a positive way more than Dario Franchitti.
I'll be sad that he's not part of the field when the IndyCar Series kicks off the 2014 season at St. Petersburg in March, but I'll also be relieved that one of the sport's truly good guys had the common sense to quit while he was ahead.