A hop in a friend's EC120 sold Indy racer Dario Franchitti on the business and personal benefits of helicopters.
DARIO FRANCHITTI WAS SOLD ON HELICOPTERS during a house-hunting trip in Scotland several years ago. The house was 4-5 hr. away. But fellow racer Colin McRae offered him a ride in his Eurocopter EC120 and they were at the house within about an hour. Along the way, the Scottish-born driver of Italian descent saw his homeland in a way he'd never appreciated before.
"The glens, the boats, the lochs up on top of a hill," he said. For someone who, since he was a boy, has spent much of his time skimming as low as possible along racetrack curves and straight-aways, he was struck by this new perspective on Scotland's beauty--and by the access a helicopter provided to that beauty. "You see something you like, then you hover. It opened up areas I never thought of."
Franchitti would appreciate as well the value of a helicopter as a business tool and as a means of honing his skills as a driver of open-wheel race cars. After discussing his aircraft aspirations with McRae and another friend who has an AS350 in Australia, he bought an EC120. "I liked the look of the EC120," he said, "and the cost of the ship is so small" [at $1-million-plus]--"being Scottish that's important to me."
He started his flight training at Heliflight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., slipping in 2-3 days of instruction between races on the Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) circuit. "The whole studying thing was unusual," he said of the flight instruction, indicating he's no bookworm.
The training stays with him, he added. To this day, "I still hear his voice in my head when I fly," he said of his instructor, "a young Brit" named Rich Griff. He said he tries to get back for recurrent training every six months or so.
Born in Edinburgh, 32-year-old Franchitti has been racing since he was 10 years old. He won his first title, the Scottish Junior Karting crown for go-karts, the next year. (Other big-name racers whose careers started in karting, as it is called, include NASCAR driver Tony Stewart and Indy car racer Sam Hornish Jr.)
In 1991, Franchitti moved into cars, winning the Formula Vauxhall Junior Series championship and catching the eye of three-time Formula 1 champion and Scotsman Jackie Stewart. The next year he was McLaren/Autosport "Young Driver of the Year." He raced in Europe until 1997, when he shifted to racing in the CART league in the United States and Japan, contending for the title in 1998 and 1999 with Hogan Racing, then Team Green in 2002. When Team Green became Andretti Green Racing and switched to the Indy Racing League, Franchitti switched, too, in 2003.
Indianapolis, Ind.-based Andretti Green Racing is owned by Michael Andretti (son of racing legend Mario Andretti and another karting vet), Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.
A back injury from a Scotland motorcycle accident sidelined Franchitti for most of the 2003 season (and slowed his flying), but in 2004 he logged his first IndyCar victories with wins at Pikes Peak, Colo. and Milwaukee, Wis. He also had five top-five and eight top-ten finishes.
Franchitti's car was one of four that Andretti Green entered in this year's IndyCar Series. That was more than any other Indy Racing League team. The other team drivers were Bryan Herta of California, Tony Kanaan of Brazil and Dan Wheldon of the United Kingdom. Wheldon won the IndyCar championship last month, with Kanaan finishing second and Franchitti fourth. Herta finished eighth.
Franchitti's first victory in this year's season was in the Firestone 200 at the Nashville Superspeedway, where he sat down with Rotor & Wing before the race.
Having earned his private pilot's license in 2002, Franchitti used the EC120 to fly from one race to another, enjoying his flights over other drivers stuck in race-day traffic on their way to the airport after the checkered flag had been waved. (In most cases, Franchitti lands on or next to a racetrack's grounds.) He said he puts 100-200 hr. a year on the aircraft, with missions that typically run 2-3 hr. "I bought it definitely for fun," he said, "but the majority of my time in the aircraft is going to and from races and back and forth to sponsors."
Visiting sponsors of the Andretti Green team and his No. 27 ArcaEx car can be a daunting task, if the post-victory ceremonies at the Nashville Superspeedway are any indication. After his car was pushed into the winner's circle, Franchitti and all his crewmembers had to pose for photos with each sponsor's baseball cap on their heads. That required them to done and doff about 15 different caps. If you think the most exhausting thing about Indy car racing is the 200-plus laps on the oval track, think again.
This year, Franchitti traded in the EC120 for an AS350B3.
"It was typical racing driver stuff--more power, more speed," he said of the upgrade. "With cars, I want the fastest. With helicopters, I wanted the fastest single you could find, and that was the B3."
His AStar is equipped with a Garmin 430 avionics, a Garmin MX20 moving map, a Mode S transponder and weather from Weather Services International, "although I'm going to swap for XM." Franchitti has a single-disc CD player installed and uses Bose headsets on the aircraft.
While both he and American Eurocopter officials said neither Franchitti's EC120 purchase nor the AStar upgrade were part of a sponsorship deal, American Eurocopter has become a major sponsor of the No. 27 car. That's in part because American Eurocopter President Marc Paganini is a big racing fan and an amateur racer himself.
Franchitti is a big movie buff. (The best car-chase scene on film, he said, is in "The Italian Job"--the 1969 original, not the 2003 remake.) He's an admirer of fellow Scot Sean Connery and an avid James Bond movie fan. The paint scheme on his new AStar is based on the livery of the helicopter used in the 1977 Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." (The EC120's color depends on who you ask. Franchitti said it was Scottish blue. His wife, actress Ashley Judd, who is an alumna and huge sports fan of the University of Kentucky, has described it as Wildcat blue.)
Beyond the personal and business benefits, Franchitti said, "I've learned things flying a helicopter that have stood me in good stead in driving."
It's given him a basic understanding of aerodynamics, which is helpful in a sport that is all about generating and managing down-force on a car. "I can basically b.s. with engineers."
Learning the proper touch, feel and hand-eye coordination of flight control inputs in the helicopter has also helped him better control his car on the track. "The focus is the same."
Franchitti said he expects to put about 200 hr. a year on the AS350.