Simulator racing has become an unexpected joy for Dario Franchitti and not just because he’s been highly competitive on a platform in which he wasn’t always comfortable.
Yes, Franchitti has excelled in the Legends Trophy sim league, winning the inaugural race in the series at Silverstone’s National Circuit layout.
But the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner relishes the trash talk, arguments and humorous asides that often erupt on the race lineup’s party line among the two dozen F1, IndyCar and sports car champions who are retired from real-world racing but not from its competitive spirit.
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“It’s just so much fun to do,” Franchitti told NBCSports.com in a Thursday phone interview from his home near London this week. “The race is great, but honestly to watch that (driver) chat is every bit as fun. Before and after the races and taking the mickey out of each other is awesome.
“Because when you’ve got Emerson Fittipaldi on the group chat saying, ‘This doesn’t handle anything like the (McLaren) M23 I won the world championship with (in 1974).’ For me as a race fan – and I think all of us actually are race fans – it’s cool. Even Jenson Button, a fellow Formula One World Champion of Emerson’s, was just like, ‘That’s cool.’ ”
The fun will continue on Saturdays for the next five weeks as the Legends Trophy begins a second round, starting with the virtual Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia.
The series will keep points standings this time (with a $25,000 charitable donation at stake for the champion) after a competitive nine-race first round that saw seven winners, including Franchitti, Button, Juan Pablo Montoya (who won at Lime Rock), Jan Magnussen (a winner at Sebring and Lime Rock), Rubens Barrichello, Emanuele Pirro and Petter Solberg.
When the green flag drops at noon ET today (broadcast on ESPN2 and The Race YouTube Channel), the field also will include Fittipaldi (who immensely has enjoyed his introduction to sim racing at 73), Adrian Fernandez, Bryan Herta, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Max Papis and Oriol Servia.
In many ways, it’s like a re-creation of the rivalries from the Championship Auto Racing Teams era of 1995-2002.
“There definitely is some of that going on,” Franchitti said. “Except we’re supposed to be older and wiser.”
It didn’t seem that way after a recent race in which Tony Kanaan was just as upset with Papis as he might have been two decades ago.
“Max couldn’t even answer, he was laughing so hard,” Franchitti said. “There’s a bit of that going on.”
Franchitti said he was recruited to the series by 2013 Indy 500 champion Kanaan, who will race Saturday in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It’s funny; we started this Legends thing four weeks ago just (with) a phone call,” Kanaan said. “Should we get the old-timers to go do some sim racing? We did.
“You had Jacques Villeneuve on an Xbox. We’re all on a $10,000 sim, and he’s beating us with a little controller. That is the fun part. We take each other out all the time. We’re laughing. We have headsets and talk to each other. We take it serious, but it’s really not.”
Last week, Franchitti laughed off a late dustup with Montoya (which he described in this interview) during a fierce battle at Nurburgring. But the Legends Trophy also has its moments of gravity, as Franchitti discovered while taking a Brabham BT44 to a wire-to-wire win in the opener at Silverstone.
“I was getting really nervous,” Franchitti said. “Leading with three laps to go, and I’m thinking, ‘Crikey, I better not mess this up!’ ”
So it’s almost like real life for a three-time Brickyard champion and 31-time winner in IndyCar?
“Yeah!” Franchitti said. “And that shocks me. I must admit. That really shocked me how nervous you can actually get.”
It also is surprising how well he has taken to the format given an inauspicious introduction to sim racing. Toward the end of his IndyCar career, Franchitti tried a full-motion simulator in testing.
“It knocked my inner ear out so badly that I couldn’t test a real car at Milwaukee the following week,” he said. “I gave the sim a wide berth from that point of view for quite a while. But then I’d seen it grow in popularity, and I saw this lockdown was coming, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
He and his brother, Marino, visited Darren Turner, a World Endurance Championship star for Aston Martin who also heads up the Base Performance Simulation company (and competes in the Legends Trophy series).
After trying out several sim rigs, Dario picked a favorite and plunged immediately down a virtual rabbit hole of nostalgia and speed.
Racing iconic cars in exotic locations became a passion for Franchitti, whose love of racing history is well documented. He deftly guided a Ferrari from 1990s F1 around Oulton Park, a very narrow road course near Manchester. He wheeled the famous 1,500-horsepower Porsche 917 Can Am at the old Nurburgring Circuit, popping a massive wheelie over the jumps just for fun.
“I was just doing crazy stuff that you never could get away with” in real life, Franchitti said. “That’s been the fun part. And seeing friends of mine who raced at the same time or before me all getting sims and saying, ‘OK, what races are we doing now?’
“You can get the craziest cars on the craziest circuits. It’s never going to replicate or take over from the real thing, but it’s a good distraction, and it’s close enough to the real thing to give you a bit of a thrill.”
And it’s helped as the four-time IndyCar champion waits out the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the U.K., where the same social distancing and stay-at-home measures are being applied as in the States.
“I haven’t been out in I don’t know how long,” said Franchitti, who has two young children with his wife, Eleanor. “I’m lucky I’ve got quite a bit of space and a bit of land, so I don’t feel too hemmed in, and the kids can go out and play, and I can run.”
In between watching snippets of the news and attending to a honey-do list of house repairs, Franchitti also is able to work from home in his job as a Formula E commentator.
Saturday, he will be commentating a Formula E sim race (with a full field of pro drivers) from a small home office studio. When finished, he’ll walk 20 paces down the hall to his sim rig. He’ll jump in for a couple of practice laps, qualify and then race the Legends Trophy.
“I’m glad my wife’s very understanding,” Franchitti said with a laugh. “I think she probably thought my schedule would slow down a bit now that I’m not traveling to all the normal IndyCar races or the FE races.”
He has the full support of family. Eldest daughter Sofia, 4, watches her dad’s Legends Trophy races “and then comes through afterward to give me a critique on what I did, right or wrong,” Franchitti said. “I really enjoy that part of it. Having her as part of it has been cool.”
— Dario Franchitti (@dariofranchitti) May 1, 2020
There’s been plenty of time for family since Franchitti made a mad dash back across the pond from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was in the paddock when the IndyCar season opener was postponed March 13.
As a Chip Ganassi Racing driver coach and consultant (“The job entails whatever Chip wants. It’s really whatever I can do, whether it’s what I think or what other members of the team think, to make us more competitive.”), Franchitti has stayed in regular contact with team executives Mike Hull and Doug Duchardt.
Whenever the IndyCar season restarts (the plan is June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway), he is prepared to make the sharp turn to be at the track again (and for the Formula E races he is announcing as well).
“That’s the hope,” Franchitti said. “We’ll see what happens. I’ll do everything I can to get back there. It’ll really depend on what travel restrictions in different countries come into play. Fingers crossed I can do my usual crazy travel schedule of IndyCar and Formula E.”
In the meantime, he’ll have a blast traveling with his longtime buddies – virtually — to race at the world’s greatest circuits.
“None of us are really taking it too seriously, which is great,” Franchitti said. “We all practice a lot and get frustrated with it, but when the actual racing happens, we’re just having a good time with it.
“I hope the people who are watching it are having as much fun as we are.”