|Friday, July 14
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine
George Franchitti's eyes couldn't lie. All they could do was reflect the sorrow of the words he could not find. He had just watched his son Dario lose CART's championship by a single point -- a point that had been squandered a dozen different ways. George knew his son was fuming, that
his heartbeat was still in his ears. "I'm sorry," he said.
It took Dario a second to make out what his dad said next. "I'm sorry, son. Greg is dead."
Franchitti knew that Greg Moore, his best friend, had wrecked in the 10th lap of the season's final race, at Fontana, Calif. But the tragic result had been kept from him and the rest of the drivers. He didn't know that after Moore's winged chassis went airborne and struck an exposed concrete wall, it blew apart under the force of 154 G's. He wasn't aware that the fiercest impact ever recorded by a racecar's telemetry had sent the cagelike cockpit skidding upside down onto a grassy stretch of infield as Moore's lifeless arms danced over the side.
Franchitti didn't say a word. He just walked on burning feet back to his team's transporter, closed the door and collapsed, crying. Not even his girlfriend, actress Ashley Judd, would interrupt him.
Moore, Canada's best driver since Paul Tracy, had broken into CART in 1996. A year later, at the age of 22, he became the youngest driver to win a CART event. That season Moore also developed a rare bond with Franchitti, the much-hyped Scottish rookie. When Franchitti won his first race in '98, Moore threw a party that left the two of them sleeping off a drunk on a Wisconsin hotel lawn. They skied the Canadian Rockies, went fly fishing near Vancouver and even bungee-jumped in Australia together. They were charter members of a millionaire boys club that included Max Papis, a Cary Grant look-alike with a melting Italian voice, and Brazilian Indy Lights champ Tony Kanaan.
But the grisly nature of Moore's death has aged CART's wild bunch. Papis has a few more lines around his eyes. Kanaan, who spent a somber winter in Brazil, says, "The accident made all of us think twice about spending time with our parents." Steve Challis, Moore's former engineer and confidant who had signed on last August to play the same role with Franchitti this year, suffered a stroke six weeks after Moore's death and is now working a limited schedule.
For his part, Franchitti says, "After Greg's funeral, I needed to go home to Scotland, to get away. It was all I thought about. I wasn't in a hurry to do anything. My whole life, my thinking has been getting in the car. For the first time, I was a blank. I couldn't leave my house. My thoughts went back to Greg at the strangest times. They still do."
Three months after ending the season in the worst possible way, Franchitti (fran-KEY-tee) strolls down Miami's South Beach in a white T-shirt, Versace pants and Jean-Paul Gaultier shades. He's had enough of wandering aimlessly around his house, staring down from the hills at his native Edinburgh. In a few days, he'll fly to Zurich, where a Yoga master -- "he looks like a Bond
villain," Franchitti jokes -- will put him through a week of boot camp in the Swiss Alps. "I just woke up one day," he says, "and the feeling was back."
Lunch is in a courtyard, with white canvas umbrellas shading a bubbling tile fountain. The 26-year-old Franchitti comes off, as he admits, much like a person who went to "one of those snooty private schools." He hears a far-off whine, just louder than a dog whistle, and identifies a Porsche 911 approaching down Collins Avenue. "I really need to get a life," he sighs.
Franchitti is intensely private about that life, from his relationship with Judd (off-limits) to his parents (no interviews). All Dario allows is that his life was not entirely charmed, and that his family sacrificed as they financed his early career off the profits of George's ice cream distributorship. "In the end," Dario concedes, "it was money he didn't have. There's a lot of pressure on you when your family puts so much faith in your ability."
Then there's the company he keeps. The actor Jason Priestly, a racing groupie, invited Franchitti to his wedding at the Buffalo Club in Los Angeles last year. That's where he met Judd. "I introduced them and walked away," says Priestly. "The next thing I know they're hot and heavy at the bar."
On the track, Franchitti has even faster moves, reading traffic a lot more quickly than Kurt Warner reads a blitz. "Certain drivers just wait for people to drop out," he insists. "But I spent enough years battling back from bad qualifying to know how to pass."
That skill carried him up through the junior ranks of European kart racing, and caught the eye of countryman Jackie Stewart. The Formula One icon sponsored a cash-strapped Franchitti in the F3 series -- and also bought him his first suit. With Stewart's refinement and the resources of Mercedes Racing, Franchitti became one of the hottest young drivers on the continent. "The world is full of guys who don't have money and hang around tracks looking for rides," Franchitti says. "I easily could have been one of them."
After two years racing souped-up sedans around street courses, Mercedes pushed Franchitti across the Atlantic and into Hogan Racing's CART team. The outfit was not ready for prime time and collected just 10 points out of a
possible 418 in 1997. Franchitti was miserable.
Fortunately, so was rival owner Barry Green, who'd stumbled through two dark years after winning the '95 title with Jacques Villeneuve. A no-nonsense Aussie, Green recognized wasted talent and snatched up Franchitti for his Honda-powered Team Kool Green, pairing him with series bad boy Paul Tracy. Although Tracy may have the reputation of being CART's most headstrong
driver, Franchitti is actually fussier. He'll send back 16 seats before finding one that's right and will spend hours on steering wheel positioning. He's also the
resident fatalist of the bunch. His former engineer, Don Halliday, blames it on the Scottish inclination to see the glass as half-empty. "If something goes wrong, he's too vulnerable to his feelings," says Halliday. "In the car, I can only see his eyes and his nose, but his eyes show his depression. He goes very silent."
"Is that what he said?" Franchitti laughs. "That Scots are dour? [It comes out sounding like "Scoots irr door?"] Maybe in striving to be the best, I do take a negative view. Because if I'm not winning, I'm concerned."
Until last fall, Franchitti seemed to treat CART like finishing school -- a place to cool his heels as he waited to matriculate (presumably with honors) at F-1. He did his course work on the track by day and partied like a senior at night. Moore, a dashing Vancouver native, was usually a couple of cocktail seats away. Moore's hometown reminded Franchitti of his native Edinburgh so much that it became his favorite retreat, and the two considered renting a place together there. "When you do so many things with one person, they all remind you of him," Franchitti says later as he strolls in South Beach. He stops on the sidewalk to stare at a Hummer just like the one Moore drove.
Add "Mad" Max Papis and Tony Kanaan to the mix, and you had motorsport's Brat Pack. Instead of summering at the Sands, they wintered at Papis' place near Milan. They played in Paris, partied at the discos, talked into the night around the fire. It was the time of their lives. And Franchitti, who'd won three-quarters of the possible points over the last five races of '98, returned from the off-season to find himself the consensus favorite to win the '99 championship.
But it's not easy to keep a streak warm over the winter. Colombian
rookie Juan Montoya raced out early with the hotter hand, leading the standings for nine weeks. Team Green wasn't far out of the hunt, though, and took the lead with a midseason victory in Detroit. Even after Montoya pulled off two more wins, Franchitti was only four points behind. But when the circuit wound back to Vancouver in September, Franchitti made the biggest mistake of his career.
"To even think about it annoys me," he says of the late-lap mishap. "Juan's tires were slipping, and I had him where I wanted him. I was with him through the first two turns, and quick in the third. Then I got momentum and found myself inside him in the fourth. I hesitated, which is not normally my way. Had I gone for it [after hesitating], we would have touched and both been taken out. So I spun myself out." That night, Moore grabbed Franchitti and organized an impromptu "loser's party" at the Hard Rock.
The next week at the Laguna Seca road course near Monterey, Calif., Franchitti made another mistake when he restlessly stormed into Moore's blind spot, looking to steal seventh place as they spilled into the first turn. The two cars touched, and Franchitti went spinning onto the grass. When he got back to his trailer, his phone rang. "Sorry, dude," Moore said. "I didn't see you."
In Houston, Franchitti came back with a stunning display of attack driving, bullying his way from 18th place up to third with 16 laps to go. Then Franchitti made a garish pass for second, clipping the inside of Christian Fittipaldi on a move that showed he was unbowed by the prior two incidents. The contact tore a winglet off his right sidepod, and only luck prevented the car from losing control. That luck resurrected his season, as Franchitti went on to finish in second place, then won the next race at Surfer's Paradise, Australia. Suddenly, with just one race to go, Franchitti was back in the points lead.
Much has been made of the ill-fated pits in Fontana that left his comeback in a shambles. Franchitti's crew had difficulty changing tires during his second stop, dropping him from sixth to 13th place. Back on the track, Franchitti discovered that his right rear wheel was set improperly. Slowly maneuvering around the oval, he made his way to the pits after just one lap and fell all the way to 18th. But he still could have won the title had Team Green not ordered him to go pedal-to-the-metal to get back up front. With a more conservative fuel strategy, Franchitti might not have needed to stop for a splash of gas late in the race -- while he was in fourth and Montoya was close behind. The stop caused Franchitti to slide back to 10th while the Colombian stayed out on the track and finished fourth, creating a season-ending tie. The CART crown was awarded to Montoya on a tiebreaker: He had seven wins to Franchitti's three.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered after Franchitti got his heartbeat out of his ears and could make out what his father had told him. "I'm sorry, son ..."
Two days after strolling South Beach, Franchitti buckles into the cockpit for the first time since season's end. He's hardly pushing his Kool Green machine during the day's second practice session when the back of the car suddenly slides out of control. He tries correcting, but the car careens nosefirst into the wall, then spins halfway and smacks hard on the left side. Medical crews rush to extricate Franchitti from the wreckage. He's airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital with a fractured pelvis and brain contusions. At the time, everyone -- even Franchitti -- assumes it was driver error. But a postpractice inspection unmasks the real culprit: the car's rear axle, which had snapped in midturn.
Franchitti, who is rehabbing five days a week while staying at Judd's home in Tennessee, is now considered questionable for the March 26 season opener at Homestead, Fla. CART won't clear him to race until he passes a CAT scan and proves his skills by taking laps in a go-kart.
This season could have been Franchitti's audition for F-1 next year, a tryout for a much-needed change of scenery. Now he must prove to the racing world -- and to himself -- that he didn't lose his edge when he lost his best friend.
|Franchitti has had his moments of triumph.