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Dario Franchitti the joker may be wild at the Indianapolis 500

IndyCar drivers spend on average about three weeks each year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the series' biggest race, the Indianapolis 500.

Much of that time is spent testing and adjusting the cars' setup, getting them just right for the track conditions in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," which this year airs Sunday, May 29, on ABC. Then of course, the drivers must also satisfy the myriad media requests and commitments to sponsors.

Still, that can take up only so much time, leaving drivers, crew and other racing personnel to their own devices to pass the time and combat boredom.

For some, that can mean practical jokes. Back in 2005, then-Andretti Green teammates Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta engaged in a friendly war of pranks that culminated in Franchitti hacksawing Kanaan's expensive racing bike in half during the live broadcast of a nationally run preshow, a debt that Franchitti has since repaid by purchasing Kanaan a new set of wheels.

Still, Franchitti wants what he says is his due.

"The deal was," says Franchitti, the two-time Indy 500 and three-time IndyCar champ, "that he was going to give me half of the frame I sawed in half, and he was going to keep the other half. He hasn't given me the other half yet, so I'm waiting for my half bicycle. When I see him at Indy I'm going to be asking for it. ...

"What I'm going to do with half a bicycle, I don't know. I'll probably stick it on a wall to remind me," he says, laughing. "But I haven't had much time for practical jokes lately. But Indy's always a good time for it because we're there for such a long time, and most of the drivers stay at the track in their buses. So yeah, there could be some practical jokes in there. We'll see."

Pranks notwithstanding, what is certain is that a 33-car field that includes Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick, Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves will take to the venerable Brickyard's 2.5-mile quad oval to challenge Franchitti and his 2010 title in the race's 100th anniversary and 95th overall running.

Franchitti won this race last year under caution after leading it for 155 of 200 laps. He played his fuel strategy perfectly, crossing the track's brick finish line just ahead of Wheldon with a scant 1.6 gallons of fuel left. Moments later, the 38-year-old Scotsman was sipping from the winner's traditional quart of milk.

"Had the race gone green," Franchitti says, "I'm not saying we would have been able to do burnouts on my victory lap. But we had calculated we had enough fuel to make it. So for me, apart for the last 20 laps with having to save fuel, it was a day I was able to run in front. The Target car was very fast, and I was driving it well, and I was able to lead something like 150-odd laps or something. So it was a nice feeling to be out front and leading all those laps.

"But typical Indianapolis," he says. There's always something that happens, and you have to adapt to it. So it was definitely an interesting end."

Weather also has a way of making things interesting at Indy, be it the ever-present crosswinds that can make for unexpected handling issues and force changes in car setup; rain, which can shut things down entirely; or sun and heat, which can affect tire grip and also influence setup.

A good example of that, says Franchitti, was last year's race, when "the temperature went up a lot in the two or three days before the race, which means the track loses grip, so you have to adjust the car for that.

"In windy conditions," he continues, "it can make it very difficult for the driver. All these things kind of have to be taken into consideration, especially with the speeds you're running there and the fact the setup is so critical. Because there's so little speed differential between the high speed you go and the slowest speed you go around a lap of Indy that any gust of wind and any slight change in any of the conditions makes quite a big difference."

Franchitti, who has been racing in the U.S. since 1998 and running at Indy since 2002, also won the Indy 500 under caution in 2007, when rain brought about an early end with 33 laps to go.

Franchitti described that first win as "the culmination of a dream," and he maintains that the excitement he feels racing and winning at Indy has not diminished with time and success.

"No, not at all," he says, laughing, "I think because it's so difficult to win there, like any race. When I won the first race at St. Pete this year, the excitement was every bit as much as my first win in America back in 1998. Obviously, there's something extra-special about Indy because it's Indianapolis, and the second one I was as equally excited as the first."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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