Franchitti mourning loss of friend and countryman McRae
The death of former World Rally Champion Colin McRae and three passengers in a helicopter crash hit close to home for IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti. A helicopter pilot himself, Franchitti counted countryman McRae a close friend, writes John Oreovicz.
The death of former World Rally Champion Colin McRae in a Sept. 15 helicopter crash shocked the entire motorsports world. But it hit particularly close to home for Dario Franchitti.
Like McRae, the recently crowned IndyCar Series champion hails from Scotland, and Franchitti credits his countryman for sparking his own interest in aviation. Dario often pilots his own helicopter to races from his U.S. base near Nashville, Tenn.
"Colin was really a good friend of mine and I'd say he was the main reason I got into flying helicopters," Franchitti said. "After flying around with him and [motorcycle racing great] Mick Doohan, that's when I realized what a cool method of travel it was. I wanted to look at a property in Scotland a few years ago and it was way, way out there -- almost on an island. I phoned up Colin and asked him to take me out there, so we took off and got up there and I thought it was the coolest thing.
"I'm pretty devastated and have been since I found out on Saturday," he added. "It's very difficult to even talk about because it's hard just to get past the sadness of the whole thing. The fact that his son Johnny was with him, as well as a couple of his friends, makes it even more tragic."
McRae's private craft crashed and burst into flames near Lanark, Scotland, approximately 200 yards from his residence at Jerviswood.
Preliminary reports suggest that a mechanical failure caused the accident that killed all four passengers aboard the Eurocopter AS-350 B2 Squirrel.
"I definitely don't see it being pilot error," Franchitti said. "He was in and out of that site so often -- once or twice a day normally. Colin used his helicopter the way most people use cars, and he knew his property like the back of his hand.
"I've flown with some good pilots, including the Eurocopter test pilots and instructors, and I would put him right up there with them in terms of the sheer feel for flying a helicopter."
The most successful member of a rallying family, Colin McRae was the youngest driver to win the WRC when he took the laurels at age 27 while driving for Subaru in 1995. He finished second in the championship three times and won a total of 25 international rallies, the last coming in the 2002 Safari Rally. That puts him fourth on the all-time list behind Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Carlos Sainz.
McRae hadn't had a full-time ride in the WRC since 2003, but he maintained his fame and fortune through his popular line of Colin McRae Rally video games. He also gained notoriety in America via appearances in rally competitions in the two most recent X Games, including a spectacular roll on the way to second place in 2006.
"He lived life," Franchitti said. "He was always doing something, and he was always flat-out on it. You could see that in the way he drove his rally car, the way he would pitch the thing in sideways. He was always spectacular, where nowadays most people drive those things like road cars.
"I always thought he was bulletproof; he came out of some scrapes in a rally car and motorbikes and he was a real-life action man. That's why this is so shocking."
Franchitti is the latest in a long line of motorsports personalities who took up piloting helicopters for business and pleasure. Other notables include the late Gilles Villeneuve and former NASCAR star Davey Allison, who was killed when his helicopter spun out of control and crashed at Talladega Superspeedway in July 1993. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Allison's crash was due to pilot error.
Franchitti said the best aspect of traveling by helicopter is the sheer convenience.
"You can pretty much land wherever you want and go places you could never get to otherwise," he said. "You can land at the house or if you've got a friend with some land, you can go straight to their place. I've gone to some pretty fun places where I've been able to just sit 'er down to have a look around.
"The whole thing was for me to fly on my own," he continued. "To get a plane would work for business -- just sit in the back and let someone else fly it. But for me, it's more for fun than as a business tool, really."
Incredibly, David Richards, who managed the Subaru Rally effort during McRae's tenure with the team, walked away from another helicopter crash in England on Sunday. Richards had just returned from the Belgian Grand Prix when his craft suffered a mechanical problem immediately prior to its scheduled landing.
"That's very strange and kind of spooky, the fact that DR [Richards] had a failure flying home, as well," Franchitti said. "It definitely makes you think about it, for sure. The other side of things is the amount of hours flown in helicopters every day. It's a safe form of transport, even if it doesn't seem that way right now after what happened with Colin."
Franchitti said that the death of his friend will not detract from his joy of piloting helicopters, adding that he is an extremely careful pilot.
"I look at the weather, and if it's not good, I won't fly," he said. "I'd rather jump in the car, even if it takes three times longer. I don't need to get anywhere that badly. I don't feel the need to take any chances in the helicopter. Mick Doohan is one of the craziest guys ever on a bike but he's very careful when he's flying. And so was Colin.
"There is always a risk involved," he added. "I try not to get out of my depth and I always take a cautious approach. I don't try to scare anybody. I'm happy at the end of the flight if my passengers are happy."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.