Gertrude Stein may have been right when she said a rose is a rose, but Dario Franchitti discovered that a race car is not a race car.
The former Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion last season decided to try his hand at NASCAR — “taxicab racing” as his open-wheel cohorts used to snootily call it — but found himself lost in an alien world.
Franchitti quickly ended his failed stock car experiment and returned to the friendly, familiar confines of the Indy Racing League. He now has his groove back, racking up four wins and perched in second place in the championship standings.
“For sure I’m a better Indy Car driver than a NASCAR driver,” confessed Franchitti, a 36-year-old Scott who moved to Williamson County after marrying actress Ashley Judd.
It’s odd that the skills required to drive an open-wheel car don’t necessarily translate to driving a stock car equally well: mash the gas, crank the wheel and try not to think about how hard are those concrete walls.
But Franchitti is not the only Indy driver to struggle in transition; three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. continues to have a have a difficult time adjusting to the bigger, bulkier NASCAR cars.
Frankly, a big part of the problem is not the cars but the competition. NASCAR is a much tougher neighborhood. NASCAR races start 43 drivers, compared to 22 or 23 in most IRL races. Among those 43 NASCAR drivers at least a dozen have a good chance to win and another two dozen have an outside chance. In the IRL four or five have a good chance and another half-dozen are long shots.
NASCAR runs a grueling 38-race schedule (counting two non-points races) while the IRL runs 17 races.
The competition in NASCAR is twice as tough and the schedule is twice as grinding.
And, as Dario discovered, the racing is a totally different animal. The IRL is about dexterity, horsepower and finesse. NASCAR is more about brute strength and physical endurance. (Or at least it used to be; in recent years it has lost some of its fierceness and with it, some of its flavor.)
But even though NASCAR is not as rugged and reckless as it was back in the day when iron men named Yarborough, Allison, Waltrip and Earnhardt ruled the asphalt, it’s still a long way up (or down) the evolutionary scale from the open wheelers.
That was the lesson Franchitti quickly learned during last year’s NASCAR adventure. The driver who mastered mighty Indianapolis was befuddled on the bare-knuckle bullrings of stock car racing. That’s not to say he might not try it again sometime.
“I’d like to go back under different circumstances at some point,” Franchitti said, “but I don’t see myself leaving IndyCar any time soon.”
The Flying Scot knows he’s exactly where he belongs.
Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has racing since the early 1970s.