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For Dario Franchitti, simulator racing is real fun in Legends Trophy series

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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.”

Former teammates and longtime friends Dario Franchitti (left) and Tony Kanaan at the 2015 Indianapolis 500 (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images).

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.

Dario Franchitti and his wife, Eleanor, walk the pits on 2017 Carb Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“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.”


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.

Dario Franchitti has broadcasted Formula E races with (left to right) Jack Nicholls, Nicki Shields and  Vernon Kay (Dave Benett/Getty Images Formula E).

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.”

Sebastien Bourdais laughs with Dario Franchitti on the grid before the April 28, 2017 race at Phoenix Raceway (Christian Petersen/Getty Images).

Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have 10,000 fans for IndyCar races

Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have crowds for its NTT IndyCar Series race weekend next month, the first time fans are allowed at the track this year.

The track announced Friday that up to 10,000 fans will be allowed in the grandstands daily from Oct. 1-4. The IndyCar Harvest GP race doubleheader will be held on the track’s road course Oct. 2-3.

IMS has played host to several events this year without fans, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 and a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend July 4-5 that included the Brickyard 400. Plans originally were made to have fans at the Indy 500 before reversing course a few weeks ahead of the race. In a letter last month, Roger Penske vowed that fans would return for the 2021 Indy 500.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS president Doug Boles said in a release. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Fans will undergo temperature screenings upon entry and also be required to wear face coverings at all times on property. The track said each attendee will receive a mask and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Here’s the release from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 – For the first time in 2020, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will welcome fans to the Racing Capital of the World for the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR weekend. Up to 10,000 spectators can be in the grandstands each day of racing action Oct. 1-4, per approval from the Marion County Public Health Department.

Tickets are available now via IMS.com and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

The massive facility, which holds more than 300,000 people, will provide two spectator zones with up to 5,000 fans in each. The zones will be located in Turns 1 and 4 of the oval, offering strong sightlines of the road course. Strict health and safety rules will be in place, including the following:

  • Face coverings must be worn throughout the property at all times;
  • All fans will receive temperature screenings before gate entry;
  • Grandstand seats will be marked for distancing;
  • Attendees must use pre-assigned gates and remain in their designated zones.

Global Medical Response, the world leader in compassionate, quality emergency medical and patient relocation services, will be the presenting sponsor of the penultimate weekend of INDYCAR racing this season.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

The plan, which includes each attendee receiving a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon entering the track, was developed in consultation with state and local health officials.

This event weekend is highlighted by an NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader, with races Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3. It will be the penultimate event of the series’ season as the field pursues the champion’s prestigious Astor Challenge Cup to be awarded Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The INDYCAR Harvest GP will pay tribute to a storied IMS event, the Harvest Classic in September 1916. The Harvest Classic was the only racing event held outside of May at IMS from 1911 through 1993. The event featured three races, all won by legendary driver Johnny Aitken.

Fans also will see a host of facility improvements during the event weekend, including more than 30 new LED video boards, refreshed concession stands and restrooms, and 5G wireless connectivity throughout the facility.

The first race will air at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Friday, Oct. 2 on the USA Network. NBC will broadcast the second race at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 3, with WTHR-13 airing the action live in Central Indiana.

Also racing that weekend will be the first pairing of two major sports car series — the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli and its North American counterpart, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Former Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe is among the drivers in the Indianapolis 8 Hour event held Sunday, Oct. 4.

The event also will showcase drivers in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America, GT Sports Club America and the TC America series.

The full on-track schedule is available at IMS.com.