SEBRING, Fla. – Marino Franchitti couldn’t walk very far down the pit lane at Sebring Int’l Raceway on Thursday morning without somebody stopping him to shake hands or give him a hug to welcome him back to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship paddock.
The 38-year-old younger brother of multi-time Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti hasn’t raced in the WeatherTech Championship since a GT Daytona class start in a Fall-Line Motorsports Audi at Virginia Int’l Raceway in 2014.
He will return to competition next month in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida as part of a three-driver lineup in the No. 70 Mazda Motorsports RT-24P Daytona Prototype international (DPi) car alongside co-drivers Tom Long and Joel Miller. He tested the car extensively Friday with Long and Miller.
“It feels like coming home,” Franchitti said. “Although I’m a European driver, I’m an American racer. I spent so many years racing over here, that to be away from it felt very strange and to be back feels really, really nice. It’s great to see so many old friends and it’s just nice to be back on track here at Sebring.
“Obviously, since the last time I competed in the series, the classes have evolved, GTD has evolved and we now have one top combined class with the DPis and it’s really cool to get out there and drive one of these new cars. They’re just as good as they look. They’re nice.”
The last time Franchitti competed in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2014, he brought home a victory for Chip Ganassi Racing in a Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype with co-drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. That was Franchitti’s second consecutive Sebring victory, as he won the American Le Mans Series LM P2 class in 2013 alongside Ryan Briscoe and Scott Tucker in a Level 5 Motorsports Honda prototype.
“It’s always been a special place for me,” Franchitti said. “I’ve always loved being here and loved driving here. We’ve had some good results over the years, so it’s nice to come back. It’s such a challenging track.
“When you’re working with a new car as we are here at Mazda, it’s really cool to get out there and to explore the car. The car has not done a massive amount of testing, although it raced at Daytona. It’s really cool to get out here and put more miles on it and explore the car. Testing and development is something I love doing. It’s just been a lot of fun.”
Franchitti is hopeful of even more fun when he and the team return for the race next month. It’s his only scheduled WeatherTech Championship start so far in 2017, but it’s clear he’s hungry for more.
“We’ll see where it goes, but I’m definitely keen to be back here racing in America full time,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, but definitely something I’m looking to do.”