Didier Francesia, crew chief of the #14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet driven by rookie Kyle Kirkwood, has led an interesting life.
Born in Paray Le Monial, France (near Lyon and the Magny Cours circuit), he started as a mechanic professionally in 1987. He worked his way through a variety of motorsports from Formula Renault to Formula 1 and finally to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Always smiling, Francesia has also experienced difficult times: Two days after the death of her father, Francesia was burned following a gas explosion at a friend’s house. He went rock climbing three weeks later.
But he’s had some good times too, like last year when he worked on the car Helio Castroneves drove to his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
Let’s get to know Francesia, one of the real personalities of the INDYCAR paddock:
Q: What sparked your interest in running and how did you get started?
Didier Francesia: I started racing motorcycles when I was a teenager and then briefly raced rally cars. I’ve always liked speed and anything that goes fast.
Q: In which series have you worked and with which pilots have you worked?
FD: Formula Renault, Formula 3, ice racing, Formula 1, Indy Lights, Champ Car, INDYCAR, sports cars, Baja Trophy truck. The list of drivers is very long, so I will name just a few. F1: Thierry Boutsen, Andrea De Cesaris, Alain Prost, Roberto Moreno and Juan Pablo Montoya. In INDYCAR: Dan Wheldon, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Sébastien Bourdais and Helio Castroneves.
Q: What are your goals with the AJ Foyt Racing team?
FD: AJ Foyt Racing’s goals are to win a few races this year and become a championship contender over the next five years.
Q: You recently moved from California to Waller, Texas. What was that ?
FD: I’ve lived in a few places in SoCal, mostly the beach (Ventura) and the mountains. I have been at Lake Arrowhead for the past five years. It is a beautiful little mountain village. Living in Waller has been nice so far. I love small towns and country life. It’s a bit flat though (laughs).
Q: What is your most memorable moment of your career? Or the first three?
FD: Memorable moments? I can’t choose just one. Top 3: P6 qualification in F1 at Phoenix with one of the smallest teams in 1989 (driver Alex Caffi for Scuderia Italia, which fielded Dallaras). Driving a chase truck and making pit stops at the Baja 1000. And, of course, the final lap of last year’s ‘500’ and climbing the fence with Helio.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
FD: The biggest challenge for me was moving to different countries without speaking the language properly or at all (laughs). I worked in England, Italy, Austria and ended up in Texas (laughs).
Q: What are some things on your to-do list?
FD: Race side: Pikes Peak and Bonneville (Salt Flats) Speed Week. Personally: Rope swinging on a huge rock face or The Arch in Utah. I would also like to pilot a jet pack.
Q: Do you often come back to France? If so, how often and where do you go?
FD: I don’t go back to France as much as I should, about every four or five years. Mom is getting old, and I’ll try to go more often.
Q: What interests do you have outside of racing?
FD: Snowboarding, surfing, anything resembling a skateboard/longboard, mountain biking and, of course, motorbikes – my oldest passion, for sure.
Q: If you weren’t racing, what would you be?
FD: I would probably work for Hollywood again building movie cars and props. I did that for a while, and it was super fun.
Q: You have so many tattoos, so many stories — tell us about that ink.
FD: Tattoos, I don’t have many; there’s only one now (laughs). (First tattoo?) I was 18 – a little Ferrari horse on my shoulder. (Favorites?) The next one. (Tattoo with the most interesting story behind it) I don’t know if this is the most interesting, but when I got the bottom of my foot tattooed, the guy said, ‘Do you want a tattoo there?’
Note: The train tattoo evolved from his youth when he got involved in occasional fights. A recipient of Francesia’s right fist said, “I felt like I was hit by a train.”
Q: What do few people know about you?
FD: People who really know me know that I love animals more than people.
Note: Francesia and her fiancée, Sybil, have four dogs, all rescued: Sasha and Vega (pit bulls) and Bonnie and Clyde (German Shepherd/Husky mix).
Q: Do you have pet peeves?
FD: People who think they know everything. I’m still learning every day, and I hope it never stops.
Q: Do you have any tips for new mechanics entering the industry?
FD: Hmmm… Stay humble, listen to the older guys – some of them, at least (laughing) – and stretch. Your back will hurt later in life (laughs).