Et tu, Dario?
ESPN.com is reporting that Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti will leave Indy Car for NASCAR in 2008. Franchitti, who is leading the Indy Car season series point chase heading into tomorrow's final race, is said to be joining Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team in the number 40 car.
At first glance, this annoys me. Why? Because I like open wheel racing. I grew up in Indy's heyday. Andretti. Mears. Unsers -- Bobby and Al. Foyt. While many of those guys could drive anything -- Big Wheels to pick-up trucks to F1 cars -- and did, the pinnacle of racing was the Indianapolis 500. That perception will never change for me, so when I hear of another blow to open wheel racing, I get ticked off.
(Truth be told, I've softened some on NASCAR in recent years. I find it tolerable. I guess I'm just not as impressed with Chevys, Fords and Toyotas going 100 mph when I see that on my drive five days a week.)
If Franchitti makes the jump he will be following in the footsteps of Juan Pablo Montoya, another open wheel racing star who was lured by the big money and enormous popularity of stock car racing. Montoya has spent 2007 in NASCAR getting tons of media attention, winning a race and angering the sport's traditional fans and fellow drivers alike. (Seems Juan is just a bit too aggressive for some.)
In addition to Franchitti and Montoya, Sam Hornish, Jr. is already running in some Busch Series races and may make the move to NASCAR full-time next year. Hornish was the Indy 500 and IRL series champion a year ago. If Franchitti and Hornish both jump at season's end, it will cap one of the biggest falls in the long decline of open wheel racing in North America.
Champ Car is not only losing it's biggest name, Sebastian Bourdais, to F1, but the series continues to cancel races. The IRL shut down the long-running race at Michigan International Speedway this year and could lose the last two Indy 500 winners to NASCAR. Yet, in spite of cancelled events, mediocre attendance and driver departures, neither side of open wheel racing's split can set aside their egos long enough to put the health of the sport first. It's not difficult to understand why drivers would opt for the financial security and stability NASCAR has to offer.
Good luck, Dario. I hate to see you go, but who knows? I may even watch a few more minutes of NASCAR next year.