It's been a long road back

Updated: July 22, 2004, 11:06 PM ET
Associated Press

Dario Franchitti
Franchitti
GLADEVILLE, Tenn. -- Doctors had just inserted pins and rearranged bone to fix Dario Franchitti's spine when he spied a screen over his bed in the intensive care unit.

The unit was monitoring his vital signs. That didn't stop him from asking his nurses to change the channel, so he could watch the Indy Racing League's Firestone Indy 200.

"Oddly enough, they couldn't do that,'' Franchitti recalled with a laugh.

Franchitti never watched a lap of the race because he had followed doctors' advice to repair bones that hadn't healed straight three months after a motorcycle accident in Scotland in April 2003, in which he crashed through a hedge and landed on his back.

That crash, and his decision to have season-ending surgery, limited him to three races and essentially wiped out his inaugural year in the Indy Racing League after moving over from CART with Andretti Green Racing.

Now a year later and completely healthy, the CART runner-up in 1999 finally is learning his way around the IRL.

"I have no experience at these tracks and these cars. When you've won as many races as I have in CART and done what I did there, I'm still learning,'' Franchitti said.

"Because of the new testing rules this year, I'm seeing a lot of these tracks for the first time on race weekend.''

That was the case last weekend even though the Nashville Superspeedway, site of the Firestone Indy 200, is less than an hour's drive from the Tennessee home he shares with wife, actress Ashley Judd.

His first laps came in the IRL's two-seater a day before qualifying. He qualified seventh, but ran only 65 of the 200 laps before a faulty gearbox knocked him out of the race.

That dropped Franchitti from seventh to ninth in the points race, 152 points behind teammate Tony Kanaan midway through the IRL season. The Scotsman, who won 10 races and posted 58 top 10 finishes during six seasons in CART, has finished in the top 10 just three times this year.

If Andretti Green wins an IRL title this year, the driver likely will be Kanaan or Dan Wheldon, who took Franchitti's seat last year and now is part of a four-car team.

Even Franchitti acknowledges that he would need an incredible run through the final eight races to have a chance, although he and his crew approach each event thinking they can win.

"The first race was very much feeling my way back in,'' he said. "I didn't know quite how it would go. Since then, I've definitely felt we're a challenge to win. We haven't. We've been up front and had some bad luck for whatever reason.''

Franchitti has started in the top 10 in six of the first eight races, including the pole at Texas where he came in second to Kanaan. He started third at the Indianapolis 500 in May, but cut a tire and changed the car's setup during a rain delay, eventually finishing 14th.

"It's always going to be tough. You never underestimate that challenge,'' Franchitti said. "For me right now, it's just the luck side. We certainly had it in Kansas (fourth-place). We had it in Texas. ... We just need everything to click.''

Still, at least he's racing. This time last year, Franchitti was in a body brace 24 hours a day for 10 weeks following his surgery at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

Franchitti returned to racing two months after cracking a vertebra in his lower back and finished fourth at Pikes Peak. But his spine healed with an angle near the break, worrying doctors that he could wind up paralyzed by another accident.

In July 2003, Dr. Terry Trammell inserted pins that Franchitti calls his "scaffolding,'' which remain in place. Then followed the body brace.

"That was horrible. No other words to describe it. I couldn't go anywhere, couldn't do much. I spent two hours in the gym each day doing what I could. It wasn't a nice existence -- put it that way,'' Franchitti said.

Once the brace came off, Franchitti was free but unable to race, so he traveled the world with his wife, visiting friends he normally couldn't see.

"I couldn't be at the track, so I had a holiday,'' he said. "When I came back this year, it was all new again.''

Even while traveling, he continued rebuilding his atrophied stomach and back muscles, which are so vital to an open-wheel driver battling the G forces created by driving 200 mph in a circle.

Franchitti finally knew he was better when he was able to pick something off the floor by bending at the waist instead of squatting at his knees.

"I just felt comfortable again. I could drive my car without my back hurting, my road car. Or I could get on my bike (bicycle) and ride without hurting because the muscles were stronger again,'' he said.

With his wife in Thailand at an AIDS conference, Franchitti spent 10 days back in Scotland earlier this month. He never once tried to ride a motorcycle.

"I didn't go anywhere near it. I looked at one of the bikes I still have. That's as close as I got to it,'' he said.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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