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Great Scot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is Dario Franchitti poised to become champ cars’ next Alex Zanardi?

Parallels between the Scotsman with the Italian heritage and the Italian with the Americanized first name are remarkable.

Both came to the United States after frustrating careers in Europe with the support of major race team suppliers-- Franchitti for engine builder Mercedes-Benz and Zanardi for chassis builder Reynard.

Both displayed an unusual talent at winning poles in the CART FedEx championship series. Franchitti has won five this year, his second in the series. Zanardi won six as a rookie in 1996 and four last year.

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Franchitti also has won three races this season, on the road course at Elkhart Lake, Wis., and on the streets of Vancouver and Houston. He was second to Zanardi two weeks ago on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Australia, where he moved into second place in season points. Zanardi followed his pole successes by winning three races his first season and five last year.

“I am sure Dario next year will be a very serious contender for the championship,” said two-time champion Zanardi, who will be leaving for Formula One after today’s Marlboro 500 at California Speedway. “He has proved himself capable of winning this year and all he needs is to learn to do better on short ovals and maybe be more aggressive when close racing, side by side.

“Those things come with experience. He is still very young as a race driver.”

Franchitti, 25, is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, where his racing talent was realized when, at 11, he won the Scottish junior kart championship.

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“This [CART] series is the most competitive in the world,” Franchitti said. “That is why I wanted to compete in it. I hope to get to Formula One someday and this seemed to offer a better opportunity than the old-fashioned European way of moving up through Formula 3000.”

All of which makes CART look more and more like a prep league for F1.

Jacques Villeneuve went that direction after winning the Indy 500 and the CART championship in 1995, Zanardi is leaving after winning titles in 1997 and 1998. And Michael Andretti made the trip in 1993, although he returned before completing the season.

“There is no doubt that CART has become the way to get to Formula One,” Franchitti said. “We are racing on similar tracks, with similar length races and you must drive 100% every inch. There is nothing like it for tight racing, with so many drivers capable of winning.”

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Even though this is only his second season in CART, Franchitti is aware of where he stands in the series, and where he’s headed.

“With Alex leaving, it will make the job easier next year,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to beat him before he left, so people couldn’t say I won only because he wasn’t there. Now I’ve done it. He can go.

“One day, I hope to beat him in Formula One. That’s still where I want to race.”

Franchitti drives for Barry Green’s Team Kool Green with Canadian Paul Tracy as his teammate. In 18 races he has five poles, three wins and six other top-five finishes.

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Today, he will start eighth after qualifying at 231.783 mph.

“Second in Australia was good, it moved me ahead of Jimmy [Vasser] for runner-up in the championship. You can’t win them all, but it would be great if you could.”

His most lucrative race was at Vancouver, where he won from the pole and collected a record $330,000 bonus as the Marlboro pole award winner. The award pays $15,000 to a driver winning from the pole. When the pole sitter doesn’t win the race, the purse is rolled over. The award had gone unclaimed for 22 races before Franchitti broke through.

“Vancouver was a strange race,” he said. “The course was completely new and there was almost no place to pass. I sat on the pole, but I was in traffic most of the day and after I got behind Michael [Andretti], I didn’t know if I’d find a way to pass him.

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“I tried to pass him once, on the inside, but he was having none of it. Then I got a good run--there were only about seven laps left--when I got by. Once I was in front, I had no trouble pulling away. It was a lot tougher than the first win, in Toronto. That day I led the last 20 laps and beat Zanardi without much difficulty.

“That first win ended a lot of frustration. I’d been close several times, and I felt I should have won earlier, but things just had to jell and go our way. Every time in the car, you try to do your best, and by doing that you gain rapport with your team and somehow it all comes together one day. That’s how it happened in Toronto.”

Franchitti’s third win, in Houston, was an entirely different affair. It was raining and the downtown streets became so flooded that the race was halted after only 70 of the scheduled 100 laps.

“It was like an ice rink out there at the start,” Franchitti said. “Then it dried out and became very grippy again, then it went back to an ice rink. Full credit goes to Barry [Green] and the crew for telling me when to pit for slicks and back to rain tires.”

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Franchitti joined Green, who also masterminded Villeneuve’s championship season, after a rookie year with Carl Hogan’s team.

“I drove for Mercedes in 1996 in the International Touring Car Championships in Europe, but there didn’t seem much future there so I asked Mercedes if they could help me find a ride in America,” he said. “Hogan had a Mercedes contract and they signed me up for a year with him in CART.”

Hogan and Roger Penske had been partners in 1996 with Emerson Fittipaldi, but an accident in midseason ended the Brazilian’s career. When the partnership dissolved, Hogan was glad to have Mercedes send him the young Scotsman, who came with a strong endorsement from Jackie Stewart, for whom Franchitti drove several seasons in the British Formula Vauxhall Lotus series.

“I had a good relationship with Hogan, but my contract was with Mercedes and when they did not pick up my option, Hogan did not seem to know what direction he would be going, so I signed with Barry Green for this year. It meant leaving Mercedes and having Honda as my engine, but it’s worked out well for me.”

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Franchitti’s move prevented him from driving in last year’s Marlboro 500 at Fontana because Hogan, miffed at losing his driver, signed Robby Gordon to drive that season-ending race.

“I had never been to California Speedway until I tested there a couple of days last month,” Franchitti said. “I’m looking forward to the race. I have driven only twice on superspeedways, both times at Michigan.

“Fontana seems much like Michigan. I led there in the U.S. 500 a year ago, but did not have much luck this year. It will be a new challenge, a new experience. The Handford Device [designed to slow cars in the corners] makes for very close racing.

“To have a chance, you must stay as close as possible to the car in front of you. If you get out of line, it’s like being pulled by a parachute. Before you react, four or five cars, maybe more, have gone by you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

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Franchitti credits his early training in karts--the same training ground taken by Zanardi, Michael Schumacher, Scott Pruett, Tony Stewart, the late Ayrton Senna and many other champions--for his quick success.

“You learn at an early age--I started when I was 10--about race cars, how to control a car, passing, all the things needed to know when you move into bigger cars,” he said.

“It gives you about a seven-year head start. When I moved into the British Formula Vauxhall Lotus series, I already had racing experience. It felt normal to me to be racing older drivers.”

Team owner Green likens Franchitti’s development to that of Villeneuve, whom he took from Formula Atlantic and coached to the CART championship before the colorful Canadian went to Europe and won the Formula One title.

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“It’s scary how much Dario is like Jacques in his attention to detail,” Green said. “They are totally different personalities, but in the car they are very much the same. Every time we go to a race, Dario wants to make changes in the seat. Jacques was the same way, never satisfied.

“On the other hand, Paul Tracy has the same seat all year, he never says a thing about it. Dario is very demanding about the setup of the car. He’s a great test driver. He can come in and tell me exactly what needs to be done and that can be very helpful in getting wins.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* WHEN: 12:30 p.m.

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* SITE: California

Speedway, Fontana.

* TV: ESPN.

* COVERAGE: Page 14

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Franchitti at a Glance

* Name: Dario Franchitti.

* Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland.

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* Birth date: May 19, 1973.

* Team: Team Kool Green.

* Experience: Second year in CART.

* Victories: 3 (Elkhart Lake, Vancouver, Houston, all in 1998).

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* Poles: 6 (Toronto, 1997; Brazil, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Vancouver, Australia, 1998).

* Championships: Scottish Junior Kart, 1884; British Junior Kart, 1985-86; Formula Vauxhall Junior, 1991; British Formula Vauxhall Lotus, 1993.

* Personal car: Ferrari 355.


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