Indy 500 champ Dario Franchitti, like more and more open-wheel drivers, has defected to NASCAR
By Larry Woody
Many open-wheel drivers and their fans once turned up their noses at NASCAR, with its big, bulky stock cars and its slam-bam brand of battling. They called it “taxi cab racing.”
Today the mood has changed. More and more open-wheel racecar drivers are forsaking their exotic, open-cockpit rocket ships and hailing a taxi.“It’s where the action is,” says prominent NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi, who in 2007 signed Formula One superstar Juan Pablo Montoya to drive one of his Dodges, and will add defending Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti to the fold for the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
“I had 11 great seasons in open-wheel racing,” said Franchitti, “and the time had come for a new challenge. This is it. It’s going to be a challenge for me to learn everything.”
The success of Montoya during his rookie season helped inspire other open-wheelers to make the jump. In addition to Franchitti, three-time Indy champion Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier also will defect to NASCAR full-time this year.
Villeneuve, like Franchitti and Hornish, is a former Indy 500 champion.
Dan Wheldon, who drives for Ganassi in the IndyCar Series, is expected to make the NASCAR swap at some point in the future.
“Dan is young  and he’s got plenty of good years left in Indy racing,” Ganassi said, “but he knows he can make the switch. Whenever he wants to push the button, he knows where it is.”
Danica Patrick, open-wheel racing’s most visible and popular star — even though she has yet to win — has pondered a NASCAR jump. She checked out some teams last year but decided to hold off “for the time being.”
Having an occasional open-wheel racer take a spin in NASCAR is not new. Legendary Indy drivers Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt competed successfully in both racing worlds many years ago, and in 1999 IndyCar champ Tony Stewart jumped the open-wheel ship.
Since joining NASCAR, Stewart has won two Cup championships and more than $60 million, and his success got the attention of other open-wheel drivers.
What’s the growing appeal of NASCAR over open-wheel racing? First of all, racers want to race, and NASCAR’s schedule is twice as long — 36 races to IndyCar’s 18.
Also, the paychecks and endorsement opportunities are vastly superior, and NASCAR’s fan base makes open-wheel racing’s following pale by comparison. The Indy 500 may still be the premier single-day event in racing, but NASCAR wins out in every other category over the season-long haul.
“I’ve always been intrigued by stock cars and hoped one day to drive one of them,” said Franchitti, a 35-year-old native of Scotland who moved to the U.S. to pursue his racing dream. “The timing is finally right for me to give it a try.”
Franchitti makes his home in Leiper’s Fork, a small rural community near Nashville. He moved there several years ago following his marriage to actress Ashley Judd.
“It’s quiet and peaceful and the countryside reminds me of my native Scotland,” Franchitti said of his adopted hometown.
There’s no truth to the rumor that once he settled into the heart of stock-car racing country he felt obliged to start racing in NASCAR.
“No,” he said with a smile, “although living there obviously exposed me to more stock-car racing.”
Judd, famous for her fervor for University of Kentucky basketball, has become an ardent racing fan. She attends as many of her husband’s races as her schedule permits and was waiting on pit road — rain-drenched and ecstatic — at the finish of Franchitti’s dramatic Indy 500 victory.
Ganassi admitted there is pressure on the former open-wheel aces to live up to their reputations — they don’t want to go from open-wheel champs to NASCAR flops. But he said pressure is nothing new for them.
“There’s pressure to succeed in this sport all the time,” he said. “Nobody can put racers under more pressure than they put on themselves. They’re always challenging themselves.”
If it’s a challenge they seek, they’ve come to the right place. NASCAR, unlike open-wheel racing, is not noted for its finesse. NASCAR is rough and tumble, with 43 drivers shoving for position, unlike the fields of 18 or so cars in most IndyCar races.
Franchitti, who took two wild, upside-down rides toward the end of the 2007 IndyCar season, is not likely to be intimidated by NASCAR’s physical, full-contact brand of racing.
“It’s different, but it’s still racing,” he said. “You learn to adjust your style just as you learn to adjust to the different type of car. That’s part of the learning process. NASCAR racing is extremely exciting for the fans and the competitors, and I can’t wait to become part of that excitement.”