“I’m getting, like, motion sickness here,” said the tourist on the Smithsonian’s 1959 Chicago Transit Authority “L” car Monday morning.
With an on-board film simulating movement while the car itself stays still, it’s perhaps not an usual complaint. Except this tourist was two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who flies helicopters, has raced stock cars, and now pilots open-wheel vehicles at faster than 220 miles an hour.
Our tour guide, National Museum of American History curator Bonnie Lilienfeld, pointed out that Franchitti is a professional race car driver, but by then he was already off to gaze at a 1977 Honda Civic — his team uses Honda engines, after all — and a satellite map of Southern California and a display of electric cars.
Other drivers, he said, bring electric cars to the race track.
“I usually unplug them all,” he joked.
After Franchitti dodged tourists to take a photo of a historical Pennsylvania Turnkpike sign, we approached the main lobby.
“If you have time, we could go to the Star Spangled Banner...” a staffer offered Franchitti, who was in Washington to help promote the May 27 Indy 500.
“Yes, can we do that?” he immediately said. “That wouldn’t suck, right?” he whispered to me before chasing after our guides.
This is the craziest month for Indy car drivers, with relentless on-track work at the Brickyard and a crush of media appearances. Franchitti has already logged more than 1,000 miles on the track this month — “I’m punch drunk at this point,” he joked — and Tuesday is his only scheduled off day before the race.
But when IndyCar officials told Franchitti he’d be sent to the District for this week’s media tour, he immediately made plans for a Smithsonian visit.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he explained. “My wife [actress Ashley Judd] and I have been trying to get up here and just explore Washington forever. With our schedules, we just haven’t managed to do it. At some point I plan to come back and spend a lot, LOT longer exploring here, [but] when I found out I was coming here, I said, ok, we’ve got to come to the Smithsonian and have a look.”
Franchitti is something of a curator himself, with a collection of racing artifacts spread between his office in Tennessee and his home in Scotland. History was “actually one of the few subjects I enjoyed” in school, he said, and he owns vintage suits, gloves, helmets, and even letters sent between drivers.
He said that he’s one of four men to have driven the car Jimmy Clark used to win the 500 in 1965, and he’s in the middle of the autobiography of legendary driver Johnny Rutherford.
So Franchitti consumed the museum on Monday morning, sliding among tourists in American flag hats and kids from “Mrs. Fahringer’s class” as he looked at Dorothy’s ruby slippers, George Washington’s uniform, the chairs from Appomattox Court House and the Stradivarius collection.
Franchitti is off to a slow start this season, but he’s won the racing series four times. That – along with his famous wife -- has perhaps made him the face of IndyCar in America.
“I don’t really think in those terms,” he said on Monday. “I just show up at the race track and try to put myself and the target team in position to win. Things have changed — having won one, then two, then three, then four championships — but the same things are important, the same things matter: going out as a team and trying to win races and championships.”
And even a disappointing qualifying spot in Indy couldn’t dampen the driver’s enthusiasm on Monday. He got out his phone to Google W. Gillespie and Co. — the Scottish manufacturer of a bandana from the 1790s — and made plans to tour the Smithsonian’s off-site collection of vehicles before September’s Baltimore Grand Prix. He also promised, repeatedly, that he’d be back for a longer tour.
“Overwhelming,” he said as we walked out onto Constitution Avenue. “That’s the only word. Any one of these exhibits would be an amazing thing in its own right. Put hundreds or thousands of them in the same building, and it’s tough to take it all in. It’s just stunning.”