Franchitti returns to IndyCar as a spectator

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Dario Franchitti found a spot on the Chip Ganassi Racing timing stand and settled in for the first IndyCar practice of the season. He donned a headset, listened carefully to Tony Kanaan’s comments and studied the speed charts.

It’s the new normal for the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

Forced into a reluctant retirement because of injuries suffered in an October crash at Houston, the 40-year-old Franchitti is now at the track in an undefined role with Ganassi. He’s been replaced in his red No. 10 Target car by good friend Kanaan, and finds he’s got a lot more free time on his hands now that he’s hung up his driving suit.

Franchitti said Friday there wasn’t any sadness as he watched the series go on without him. But he did have some of those emotions in January when he watched the Rolex 24 at Daytona as a spectator.

He went to dinner with the Ganassi drivers the night before the opening practice, and that’s when the realization came over Franchitti that he was no longer a competitor.

“I started thinking about the next day, and I’ve got to get ready, and it suddenly hit me, no, I don’t. I don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “That was a little sad. And then the start of the race was a bit difficult. Sometimes I find myself sort of slipping into the driver mindset of getting ready, and quickly it comes back that, no, I’m not doing that anymore.”

Franchitti’s career came to a close because of a fractured spine, broken right ankle and concussion. It was the concussion that led doctors to advise Franchitti that one more crash could do permanent damage to his brain.

Retirement has allowed Franchitti to plan a move home to his native Scotland, where he’s finding it’s nice to be able to relax a little bit.

“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, and my intensity level was fairly high,” he said. “I thought about (racing) all the time. This is all I did, and so I enjoyed the fact I can just chill out a little bit. But I do miss that little hit of adrenaline sometimes that you get from the pressure and being up against it, being up against that pressure.”

Franchitti, with 31 wins, four championships and three Indy 500s, was the face of the IndyCar Series. Now he’s just an employee for Chip Ganassi, who is struggling to figure out just what he wants Franchitti to do for the team.

“If he can improve each driver one position in the standings, he’ll be mission accomplished. That’s all you’re looking for. It’s a tight grid. It’s a tight business,” Ganassi said. “I think the important thing is he’s a champion, he’s a winner and we wanted him as part of the team. I would like that role to develop even further than just sort of being a driver coach. I don’t like that term, ‘driver coach.’”

Five things from opening day of the IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg:

1. FAST FRIDAY: The first day of practice at St. Pete showed that Honda has come prepared for the season. After struggling at this race a year ago, Honda drivers paced both of Friday’s practice sessions and Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal ended on top of the board. Sato turned a lap in 1 minute, 2.5615 seconds. Rahal was second at 1 minute, 2.6122 seconds and Will Power in a Chevrolet was third at 1 minute, 2.6443 seconds. The top 10 was an equal mix of five Chevy drivers and five Honda drivers.

Sato said his A.J. Foyt Racing entry has a lot more in it.

“I’m happy with the balance and the boys and the team worked really well,” he said. “Let’s hope this continues and we will work on speed for tomorrow.”

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