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INDIANAPOLIS -- Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan have been competitors and friends for 15 years.
On Thursday, they sat about 10 feet from each other at Chip Ganassi Racing's Indianapolis race shop as Franchitti met the media for the first time since an accident Oct. 6 during the Grand Prix of Houston forced him to end his driving career.
Prior to the devastating last-lap accident that left Franchitti with a severe concussion and spinal and ankle fractures, the two old friends were looking forward to being Ganassi teammates in 2014, reprising a successful five-year partnership at Andretti Green Racing that delivered IndyCar Series championships to both men.
|Safety team members work to extract Dario Franchitti from his mangled race car after a last-lap crash in the Grand Prix of Houson on Oct. 6.|
Now, as Franchitti glided in on crutches and talked to a small crowd of reporters about the traumatic events from the past nine weeks of his life, Kanaan sat in the front row providing unspoken moral support to his friend.
It was while in the Brazilian's apartment in Miami that Franchitti realized that the injuries he suffered in Houston could force him to step out of the car, even before specialist doctors Stephen Olvey and Terry Trammell made their professional recommendation. It was there that he first had the idea that Kanaan should take over the No. 10 Target-sponsored car that Franchitti drove to three IndyCar Series championships and two Indianapolis 500 victories.
"I didn't feel good, and at that point I really was worried because I'd broken my pelvis and had a serious concussion in 2000, and I was back in the car after I think three weeks," Franchitti said. "After three weeks this time I was in no shape to do anything."
"I went to see Dr. Olvey, and after I did an hour-long MRI test, I came back to Tony's house," he continued. "I said to Tony, 'I don't know how this is going to work out, man. I'm a bit worried here. In fact, I'm a lot worried that this is not going to be OK.' That's when I said, 'For whatever reason, if I don't drive anymore, I would love for you to drive the 10 car. That would be my dream.'"
Franchitti's worst fears were confirmed a couple days later. Taken separately, his history of back injuries and head injuries were significant enough to merit stopping for safety's sake; together, there was no question of continuing.
"I spent two days kind of thinking, 'How can I get around this?'" he recalled. "In 2003, I drove with a broken back in one race, till Dr. Trammell found out and got upset with me. I've driven with a few broken body parts over the years. I thought, 'There's got to be some kind of a way, some negotiation here.' But there wasn't."
Very happy for @TonyKanaan and @Ryan_Briscoe ,both great additions to the team. I'm really glad the 10 car is in good hands. @TCGRTeams— Dario Franchitti (@dariofranchitti) December 13, 2013
Dario said the reality that he wouldn't be back didn't really hit him until Dec. 13, when Kanaan was confirmed as the driver replacing him in the No. 10 car.
"Realizing and being told that I wasn't going to be able to race anymore, that was a whole different stage," he said. "The next sort of hard part was really when TK got announced in the 10 car. As much as I said before I wanted that to happen, it was the final, 'Oh, this is real.' So that was tough.
"But little things like phone calls and texts from people have helped along the way," he added. "Chip has been really good at picking up the phone at different times. As a lover the sport, a lot of my heroes reached out to me to say: 'This retirement thing is not that bad.' I'm going to lean heavily on a lot of those guys to help me sort of navigate my way through it."
For Kanaan, the finality of his friend's decision to stop driving (Franchitti doesn't use the word "retirement") didn't hit until Thursday, as he watched from the wings.
"It's funny," Kanaan said. "The day they made my announcement [at the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis on Dec. 13], he said, 'This is real, this is it.' For me, it's today. This is real. So it's kind of funny how the story has turned.
"It was a difficult day here just watching him," Kanaan added. "But he's doing such a good job. I wouldn't be able to handle it myself without crying. The good thing is I can still honor him every time I drive his car."
Kanaan still hasn't driven the No. 10 machine; when he completed his first test for the Ganassi team last week, he drove the No. 8 NTT DATA-sponsored car that has been assigned to Ryan Briscoe.
But he already feels an emotional attachment to the red and white machine, which was driven by his friend Dan Wheldon from 2006-08 before Franchitti took over from 2009 to the end of the 2013 season.
The trio experienced perhaps the most enjoyable years of their careers when they were brought together by Michael Andretti in 2004 and '05. They combined to win 16 races, with Kanaan taking the IndyCar Series title in 2004 and Wheldon a year later before departing for the Ganassi No. 10 car prior to the '06 season.
Enjoying my new ride for 2014. @Target @ABullseyeView #teamtarget. My Carro novo pra 2014 pic.twitter.com/N4PbwSbsTQ— Tony Kanaan (@TonyKanaan) December 18, 2013
Kanaan remembers those years fondly, and the fact that the last three faces to be engraved on the Borg Warner Trophy for Indianapolis 500 winners are the last three drivers of that No. 10 car isn't lost on the Brazilian.
"Just the other day, I thought of a funny way of thinking about it," Kanaan smiled. "When Dan went upstairs [Wheldon was killed in an October 2011 racing accident], he found a book about our lives. But he changed a page, and he wrote this story down. It's unbelievable -- the three last guys on that trophy are the three last guys who drove the 10 car. At this point in my career, I wasn't in line to get an opportunity like this."
If Kanaan is grateful, Franchitti isn't bitter. His story didn't turn out quite the way he would have scripted it when he was a kid -- the 31 Indy car race wins would have come in Grands Prix, and the IndyCar Series championships would have been achieved in Formula One.
But there are no regrets.
"Rather than being kind of bummed about not getting to drive the Target car again and other things after that," he said, "I'm just very thankful for the career -- I don't even like that word 'career' -- for the racing I was able to do, the fun I was able to have, all the things that went along with that.
"Had I gone the Formula One route, who knows how it would have turned out. I've been so happy with what I've been allowed to do."