Franchitti set to pace field, take in 2014 Indy 500 from outside the cockpit

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Of all the 2013 drivers who aren’t in the 2014 race, one stands heads and shoulders above the crowd in terms of accomplishments and accolades: Dario Franchitti.

The three-time Indianapolis 500, and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion, was forced to retire due to injuries sustained in an accident last October in Houston.

But the adverse effect has happened instead of him slowing down after not driving 230 mph. Franchitti told me Friday during the Carb Day pit stop competition he’s busier than ever, and so is the case where even over the course of our 20-or so minute conversation, there were multiple picture requests and a phone call from brother Marino back in Scotland.

He’s still active in several aspects, between his advisory role with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and some commentary and ambassadorial roles.

“I offered to change tires for them, but they turned me down,” Franchitti joked during an NBCSN interview on Carb Day.

He has more time away from the cockpit when he is in the U.S., but he’s being pulled in so many other directions than when he was a driver and had a single focus.

But now, from the outside, he sees what drivers go through in their zone, in their element, for the entire month of May.

“I am loving life, but it’s a little different,” he said. “You don’t have the pressure or hardness either. What you go through is extraordinary. You can get short-tempered. I thought when I saw these guys, I couldn’t do that right now.

“I don’t have that level of (driving) commitment right now. I’m in the right place. I’m having fun and still being part of the IndyCar Series and Team Target.”

One part of his workload that he can translate is playing analyst – both for the quartet of Chip Ganassi Racing entries and additionally for the rest of the field. Franchitti described how his former teammates are shaping up for today’s race.

“(Tony) Kanaan’s car is very strong as is (Scott) Dixon’s. Charlie (Kimball) and Ryan are happy (Briscoe),” he said. “Going 1-2 this morning was strong. The boys were happy in traffic. It’s one of those days, where the whole Target team has done a great job. We’re seeing that result today.”

There is that one other key part of Franchitti’s 2014 month of May – his role as pace car driver in the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R. And he told reporters Saturday morning that yes, he’s nervous.

“I just don’t want to mess it up,” he said. “There’s 33 of my contemporaries, it’s the most important thing of the year. I joked with Will (Power) about brake checking him on one of the laps.”

Now, Franchitti can take in the entire race morning experience from a different perspective.

“I can’t wait to be on the grid, soak up the atmosphere for the first time,” he said. “My job before was to walk out and focus. Now this year I can soak it all in.”

Fernando Alonso completes first test with United Autosports

Photo: United Autosports
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Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed his first outing with United Autosports, with whom he will contest the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, in their Ligier JS P217 LMP2 chassis.

The McLaren Formula 1 driver completed the test at Motorland Aragon in Spain alongside co-driver Phil Hanson, who will be a teammate with Alonso at next year’s 24-hour Daytona enduro. Filipe Albuquerque, a former GT class winner at the Rolex 24, was also on hand to help Alonso and the team ahead of Alonso’s first run in an LMP2 car, which comes only a couple days after he made his LMP1 testing debut with Toyota. Albuquerque races with Mustang Sampling Racing in IMSA, but will return to United’s European Le Mans Series program for all but one race in 2018.

“I had a great first test with United Autosports. Obviously, we are on a really tight schedule between now and Daytona, but it was nice to jump in the car for the first time,” said Alonso, who will rejoin the team at the official Roar Before the 24 test on January 5-7.

Alonso added, “There’s quite a few switches and things to study so it was important to do this initial shakedown before Daytona, so I could fully learn about the car. I’m happy with everything – the car felt great and the team were fantastic. The atmosphere here is wonderful, like a big family, so today has been amazing. I cannot wait for Daytona.”

Team owner Zak Brown, who also serves as executive director of McLaren Technology Group and helps lead the McLaren Formula 1 effort, shared Alonso’s enthusiasm and was not surprised he was able to acclimate himself relatively quickly.

“Fernando’s first test with United Autosports went awesome as expected. He is a world champion and it is a pleasure to have him in our car,” he said of Alonso’s debut with the team.

Alonso is currently schedule to contest the Rolex 24 with the aforementioned Hanson and McLaren test driver Lando Norris.