Franchitti says IndyCar has turned the corner

Race car driver Dario Franchitti signs autographs at the Canadian Motorsports Expo in Mississauga...

Race car driver Dario Franchitti signs autographs at the Canadian Motorsports Expo in Mississauga on January 22, 2011. (DAVE THOMAS/QMI Agency)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:46 PM ET

Dario Franchitti has been on both sides of the open wheel racing wars in North America.

And through it all he has always held the belief that given a chance a united INDYCAR racing series could reclaim the glory of the era when Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and anybody with the name Unser ruled motor racing on this side of the Atlantic.

On Saturday, Franchitti was holding court at the Canadian Motorsports Expo and he said with new leadership -- in the form of IZOD INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard -- open wheel racing at its top level has turned the corner to respectability after more than a decade of feuding and fighting among its more important players.

"The racing is as exciting as it has ever been, the crowds are coming back to the races and the car counts -- so important in establishing credibility -- are up considerably," he said.

There is still much work to do, Franchitti admitted, particularly on the television production side, where INDYCAR has suffered the same malaise as the National Hockey League in the U.S. -- a broadcast contract with the Versus cable network that cannot bring in either the subscriber base or the technical expertise of an ESPN, or a TSN for that matter.

"When I came over here (in 1997) the series was already split and open wheel racing was on a downward trajectory as far as manufacturers and fan interest," he said. "We all knew what need to be fixed and that was for it to be one series.

"In 2008 that all came back together. And since then it has been good news."

Franchitti said he is most encouraged that a proposed merger of Versus owner Comcast and the NBC television network will vault the series into the limelight that now shines on NASCAR with its FOX, ESPN and TNT broadcast package.

"I think that getting cameras into these (Indy) cars in high definition would be wild," he said.

Also high on the list of things Franchitti thinks need to be done is getting a pair of Canadians -- Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe -- in full-time rides.

"P.T. still has an awful lot to offer," he said. "He may have mellowed with age off the track but he's still the same old Tracy on the track. It is important that he be back in the series full time."

Franchitti was at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla., last week to witness first hand 24-year-old Hinchcliffe -- a native of Oakville -- test for Newman Haas Racing.

"Hopefully, James can get a full time ride," he said. "I watched him test a Sebring and he looked really comfortable -- fast and comfortable.

"He was really consistent. He's a guy who deserves to be in the series."

Franchitti said that with those two, plus Montreal's Alex Tagliani, Canada is well represented in the series -- if all three get jobs this season.

"Tag has done wonders with the FAZZT team," he said. "Canada is a massive part of our series.'

He said that news earlier this month that Edmonton would be back on the circuit of races for 2011 was another bit of good news for open wheel racing.

"Since I came back (after a year in NASCAR) in 2009 it has been nothing but upward trajectory for INDYCAR, which is great," Franchitti said. "We have new manufacturers coming in, we will have a new chassis in 2012, and the TV numbers are getting better."

Although the native of Bathgate, Scotland was fighting a nasty cold at the CME, he brought a pretty sunny outlook on what is in store for Toronto race fans in the future.

"With Chevrolet due to be back in the series in 2012 along with Lotus and Cosworth it represents a big change from the doom and gloom days when (Champ Car and the Indy Racing League) fought losing battles to keep fans," he said.

The Canadian Motorsports Expo continues Sunday at the International Centre.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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