Dario Franchitti was marinating in milk, late spring rain and glory the last time he climbed out of a race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A deluge had ended the 2007 Indianapolis 500 with the Scotsman leading as his wife, Ashley Judd, ran down pit road in a soaked flowery dress like a starlet in the climax of one of her motion pictures.
The victory was the defining moment for a driver who, a few months later, won his first Indy Racing League championship. He then took the biggest chance of his career.
There was no triumphant return in May after Franchitti left Andretti Green Racing's IRL team for the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge in NASCAR Sprint Cup.
And there will be no triumphant return in a stock car today.
The Sprint Cup series makes its 15th pilgrimage to open-wheel racing's American shrine for the Allstate 400. But 15 months after his seminal victory, Franchitti will instead be returning home from a visit to Scotland. Midseason vacations became possible when sponsorship troubles shuttered his team after 17 races.
"NASCAR is where I want to be," said Franchitti, who finished 32nd or worse in nine of 10 races (and 22nd in the other). "I want to be successful here and I don't want it to end like this."
Franchitti's exploration of this potentially lucrative land of opportunity was much like NASCAR when it first came to Indianapolis in 1994: hopeful, heady. As the series returns to the track that helped validate its presence to a mainstream audience and further its explosive growth, Franchitti's plight is much like NASCAR again: wary, uncertain.
• Economic forces such as gasoline prices have impacted attendance at major races, including the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
• International Speedway Corp., and Speedway Motor-sports, which own tracks that host 77 NASCAR events, have sustained hits to their earnings and stock value.
• While megateams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing thrive, many full-time outfits struggle to cobble enough funding to remain competitive.
• The four automakers that support NASCAR are amid historic downturns, leading GM North America president Troy Clarke to say, "There will be modifications and changes in our promotional footprint." Such a re-evaluation of the long-held belief that racing is an invaluable marketing tool is telling from a company that has won more NASCAR races than any manufacturer. But it's a reality in an era when supporting a high-level team can cost in excess of $30-million, according to the Detroit Free Press. The four manufacturers spend an estimated $500-million supporting NASCAR programs.
"They're going through a very difficult time," NASCAR chairman Brian France said.
NASCAR's return to IMS always prompts comparisons with the IRL, and though NASCAR still bests open-wheel racing by almost every measure, the IndyCar series boasts a palpable optimism after reunification and a series of off-track business successes. Foraging for scraps since 1996 might have taught the IRL to be leaner and meaner in tough times. The estimated $10-million to be paid in 2009 by the IRL's as-yet-unsigned title sponsor would pay half the cost to back one Sprint Cup team.
"There is no question that we think we're a good value and in any kind of economic downturn or in challenging economic times I think value clearly has a bit of an advantage," IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt said.
Which is of no help to Franchitti. He sits, waiting to see if Ganassi can provide him options.
"I definitely feel bad for him," said Sam Hornish, the 2006 Indy 500 winner and Sprint Cup rookie. "When you don't get to finish, it's not a fun thing for yourself or anybody around you. …The unfortunate part about racing is that it takes a lot of money to go and do it and you've got to have the sponsorship and stuff behind you."
There are no exceptions.