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By Lee Bailie / Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher

Coming as it did on a random Thursday, nearly a month after the final race of the 2013 season, news of Dario Franchitti’s retirement from IndyCar racing after 16 seasons caught me completely off guard, to the point that I learned of it from an office colleague who doesn't follow the sport – and for good reason, as it’s not her area of responsibility – after she saw the news online.

My initial reaction – aside from surprise – was that she must be mistaken. She must have confused Franchitti with someone else or didn’t have all the facts. He can’t be retiring now…can he?

Yes he can, and he is.

Franchitti, at age 40, with three Indianapolis 500 victories, four IndyCar championships and 31 combined CART and IndyCar wins is retiring from the sport he’s competed in full-time since 1997 (minus one forgettable season in NASCAR in 2008).

He’s leaving the sport – and one of its very best rides in the no. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing machine – after being advised by doctors that continuing to race would pose significant risks to his long-term health. While the broken back and ankle he suffered in a nasty last-lap crash in Houston on Oct. 6 should heal just fine, things aren’t so straight forward with respect to the concussion he sustained in the same incident.

With all of the attention currently being focused on former athletes (particularly ex-football players) suffering from health problems in later life after taking repeated blows to the head during their playing days to the point that several have committed suicide, it seems Franchitti isn’t willing to sacrifice the quality of his post-racing life in pursuit of another championship or Indy 500 win.

It’s hard to argue with that thinking when one considers the amount of punishment the Scotsman has endured during his IndyCar career.

Despite all of his success, he has been involved in some downright scary on-track incidents in his racing career – crashes in back-to-back races at Michigan International Speedway and Kentucky Speedway in 2007 in which his car was launched into the air stand out in my memory – and the cumulative effects of all of those hits could have a similar impact on Franchitti as it has for a growing number of former athletes in contact sports.

The bottom line is the body of evidence linking repeated head shots and concussions with neurological problems in later life is too large to ignore anymore, and to do so is just plain foolish.

So as much as I’d like to see Franchitti continue on for another season or two to chase IndyCar history, he’s far too smart for that. Given that his place in the sport’s history is already assured, and he’s financially set for the rest of his life, why take the risk? There is no reason – he’s got nothing left to prove.

So off into the sunset rides one of the most accomplished IndyCar racers of a generation. Franchitti was not only an intense, exacting competitor, he also possessed a keen understanding of the sport and his place within it. He possesses an enormous appreciation for IndyCar traditions – particularly those associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and always seems to carry himself in accordance with its best aspects.

A student of racing, he often professes his enduring respect and admiration for the greats that have come before him, both from his native Scotland (the late Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart in particular), and the rest of the world. The reverent tones with which he speaks of them and his ex-CART rival (and close friend), the late Canadian Greg Moore, further imbues his career with a sense of statesmanship, not to mention grace.

His retirement leaves a massive void in the IndyCar Series. This off-season the series is already coping with the departure of several of its biggest corporate backers (including title sponsor IZOD), and now it will have to embark on a new season without its most recognizable and accomplished star.

Ironicially, Franchitti’s departure may have just given the 2014 IndyCar season its biggest enduring storyline: life after Dario.

I’ll leave the 2014 season – along with all of the hotstove speculation regarding who will drive the no. 10 Target Chevy at Ganassi – for another blog post, but will close by saying that Franchitti’s retirement leaves as big a void as IndyCar has experienced in the last 20 years.

With due respect to the passing of Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick’s defection to NASCAR, Franchitti meant a great deal more to the sport than either of them.

On a personal note, I will miss interviewing Franchitti almost as much as I’ll miss watching him race. The times I’ve interviewed him in recent years he was always thoughtful, patient and willing to answer any question I cared to ask him – the consummate, classy pro, in other words.

I hope the new generation of young stars, led by Canada’s own James Hinchcliffe, will do for this IndyCar era what Dario Franchitti did for his.

If they can pull it off, they will both honour his legacy and create a new one worthy of celebrating.