Marisa Duffy talks to the world renowned IndyCar champion on the life-threatening crash that made him call time on his motor racing career, and having to shake off the compulsions of the past.

Walking through the streets of Edinburgh with Dario Franchitti is an eye-opening experience.

For despite being one of Scotland's most accomplished sporting heroes, the former racing driver can stroll around without anyone batting an eyelid.

It is only when we stop to take photographs that heads begin swivelling. Even then, it's unclear whether people recognise the four-time IndyCar champion, who won the Indianapolis 500 race three times, or assume he must be famous, or a model; with his striking Italian looks he certainly could be.

Dressed smartly in a belted jacket over jeans, he readies himself for the photographer by sweeping his fingers through his curly hair. "I do like to keep a low profile," he says, with a laugh.He recalls an encounter earlier in the year when a fan approached him in a supermarket in Greenock.

The fact it sticks in his memory suggests it's not a daily occurrence. "I'm lucky that when I come home I can blend in and that's nice. I never think about it [being recognised], I just get on with it."

Having gone to school in Edinburgh - Stewart's Melville College - he is at home here. Back at his friend's swish Italian restaurant in the Quartermile area, the 41-year-old is sipping tea (still a treat after more than a decade off caffeine due to his strict health regime) and contemplating his motor-racing career, a career which took in three victories in the Indianapolis 500 before ending in a most dramatic fashion just over a year ago. But more on that later.

For now, Franchitti is trying, and failing, to think back to a time in his life before he wanted to race professionally.

"I always wanted to do it," he says in an accent which still sounds Scottish despite his 16 years living in the United States. "As a kid you think you can do anything and then as I became a teenager I realised how difficult it was going to be, but I still wanted to do it, so I set my mind to it.

"I was lucky that I was surrounded by family, friends, wider family who supported me, and got involved with people like David Leslie, senior and junior, and Jackie Stewart. The combination of those things enabled me to get to where

I got to. You never do these things on your own."

Franchitti has an elder sister, Carla, and a younger brother, Marino, who is also a racing driver.

The family lived in Bathgate, then Whitburn, his father George running an ice-cream company while his mother Marina stayed at home to bring up the children (she has recently fulfilled a lifelong ambition to get a law degree from Edinburgh University, her eldest son says with pride).

His father raced a Formula Two car in his spare time and his wide-eyed sons went along to watch. "I used to go to Ingliston with him and drive my little go kart around," Franchitti recalls.

He started racing karts at West of Scotland Kart Club in Larkhall and tested at Knockhill, near Dunfermline, and fairly soon was racing at the British Championship.

His relationship with Sir Jackie Stewart proved crucial when financial challenges threatened to put an end to his dreams.

"Dad re-mortgaged the house and family and friends pitched in to help me get through that first year and after that, that was it. I won my first championship in cars that year - 1991. I think Jackie had watched one of the races I had won and I got a test with Paul Stewart Racing, which Paul ran with [his father] Jackie.

"I'll never forget it. I was 17 and I had to go to the Christmas party to meet Jackie so I put on my best - my only - suit and sat next to him and was totally gobsmacked.

"He was brilliant though. He put me at ease completely. We were doing a Christmas quiz, all the team, and one of the questions was about Stirling Moss. Jackie opened his suit pocket, pulled out his phone, flipped it down [and called Stirling] to double-check the answer. I thought to myself: 'Wow. This is the big time. Holy smokes.'" He laughs warmly at the memory.

From that meeting, things were on the up for Franchitti. "Jackie phoned me and said; 'If you drive the car I will find the money,' and he got a load of Scottish companies involved.

"What I ended up doing was paying that money back from future earnings from racing, but I would never have had that chance without him doing that."

Franchitti raced with Stewart's team for three years before moving to Germany in 1995 to race with Mercedes.

In 1997, he was given an opportunity to move to the US, which led to his involvement with IndyCar. He was 24. "It was simply a matter of opportunity," he says. "I thought at the time I was getting old but looking back I was pretty young. When I moved over to the States full time it was a culture shock. I had a great life over there, I really did, but I was always homesick. I always wanted to get home whenever I could."

Despite the homesickness it was clearly a successful period and when asked about the high points he cites a win at Surfer's Paradise in Australia in 1999 which took place a year or so after his move Stateside. "It was a really happy time," he says.

But there was sadness, too, as the fate of his best friend Greg Moore, a 24-year-old Canadian driver who was caught up in a crash at the California Speedway, illustrates all too painfully.

"Greg got killed shortly after so I would probably say that would be the highlight I would most like to relive."

It was also an exciting time in his personal life as he was only a few months into his relationship with the Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, who appeared in such movies as Heat, Kiss the Girls and Double Jeopardy.

After a two-year engagement, the couple married in Skibo Castle, near Dornoch, in 2001.

Franchitti's success on the track continued. By the time of his final race in October 2013 he had secured 31 victories from 265 starts in American racing which put him in ninth place on the all-time wins lists. Last year he was awarded an MBE for his contribution to motorsport.

For those outwith the world of motorsport, the risks seem unimaginable, a fact Franchitti is now in a position to admit. When he was racing, however, they seemed natural. "You could get used to it [the speed]. It's only when something went wrong that it started to feel really quick. If you were doing 250mph, you wanted to be doing 251, you wanted to go faster. The focus is pretty intense."

Indeed, the history of motorsport is punctuated by the tragic deaths of its stars. Franchitti's hero Jim Clark, an F1 driver from Scotland, died in a racing accident in Germany in 1968, aged 32.

The day we meet is the anniversary of the death of English racing driver Dan Wheldon, a fact Franchitti points out before taking a moment.

Wheldon, a close friend and team-mate of Franchitti, was killed in a horrific pile-up at the Las Vegas Indy 300 in 2011, aged 33. Franchitti, who participated in the race and was afterwards confirmed IndyCar Series champion, was reported as sobbing uncontrollably as he got back into his car to take part in a lap of honour as a tribute to his friend.

"When you are doing it, it seems like the most important thing in the world. People will read that and think, 'What? What an idiot.' But literally, you have spent your life doing this and it seems so important. Losing friends, it's the hardest thing that has ever happened to me and I still got back in the car after crashes. I'd get back in with broken bones and it just seemed easy, there was the drive to do it."

However, on October 6, 2013, Franchitti was involved in a crash at the last corner of the final lap of the Houston IndyCar which was to end his career.

He suffered two fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle and concussion, the head injury leading to medics warning him never to race again.

His memory is improving but he can't remember anything of the smash, nor the two weeks before or the following three weeks because of the injury.

"I remember snippets of the weekend and that's it. I don't want to remember it. Some of the bigger crashes I've had I haven't remembered and that has helped me get back into the car." Although he and Judd had announced their divorce by mutual agreement some months earlier, the actress was among the first to his bedside.

It is only now that he has retired, he says, that he appreciates the risks involved. He still works with Chip Ganassi Racing and part of his job is to advise the drivers during the race.

"Sometimes you sit back and think: 'This is mad.' But most of the time you are thinking: 'Right, how are we going to get them to go faster?' But with a bit of distance you realise what seemed normal before is not normal."

Franchitti says he can appreciate what his mother went through as she watched her sons on TV. "It must have been tough. I hate watching, whether it's Marino or Paul [di Resta, his cousin] or other friends. I don't enjoy it, so Mum, she would never have said it before, but when I stopped she did breathe a big sigh of relief.

She would do the ironing while she watched it on TV because it used to calm her down. She did a lot of ironing."

Many of his fellow drivers have moved into commentary, but it's not something Franchitti is desperate to do. "I would if it meant I could still do my job with the team, but it's always been a case of you can do one or the other, and I get a thrill out of doing what I do.

"The group of people I work with at Gannasi are the best group of people and I like that job of trying to help them. Hopefully that will continue for a good few years.

The pressure and the risk of being a team owner doesn't interest me.

"I didn't realise how tightly wound I was until I retired because I would think about racing pretty close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I really focused."

Franchitti has recently been spending time supporting young drivers including Ciaran Haggerty from Renfrewshire and his godson Seb Melrose, the son of an old school friend.

"If I can give back a wee bit it's fun to do that." He has also been working with Balvenie whisky, curating the Balvenie Rare Craft Collection, which tours the States highlighting American craftsmanship.

Four months after his crash Franchitti returned to Scotland to continue his rehabilitation. Having recently sold the country house he and Judd bought near Port of Menteith, he describes himself as "between addresses".

As he searches for a new abode he says he likes the idea of living in the countryside but wants to be close to loved ones in the central belt.

He is still adjusting to being back on Scottish soil. "I miss my friends and my family over there, my dogs, whether that's in Tennessee or Indianapolis, but I'm going back and forward enough that I can see them," he says.

"That's one of the things when you move somewhere else - you end up making friends in different places and unfortunately, at some point, you are going to be here and they are going to be there, but I'm where I should be. I feel settled."

Talk of loved ones causes him to whip out his phone. "That's my girl," he beams, showing me a picture of Shug, his beloved poodle cross who still lives with Judd, along with their other dog Buttermilk. He FaceTimes the dogs regularly, he says. "I see them in the background when I'm talking to Ashley. I do talk to them directly, but I don't like to do it too often as I think it might confuse them."

He enjoys his new life but after decades of disciplined clean living, he says he is fighting to resist some aspects of Scottish culture - namely fry-ups.

"I've got a bunch of friends I grew up with and we go sailing and when we go on the boat, we generally don't eat well. I'm trying hard not to [eat badly]. I mean, who doesn't love a fry-up on a Sunday? Sliced sausage, that's my Achilles heel, and I am a Tunnock's addict."

Despite his busy schedule he says it's been relatively easy to hook up with old friends again. "There was never a disconnect. I would come home and see them, they would come to America and always came to Indianapolis every year, a bunch of them anyway."

As his job is still Stateside, he is clocking up the air miles but enjoys spending his free time taking his cars out for a spin and cycling. While cycling was always part of his training, he does it more after the ankle injury prevented him from running.

What about hitting the town, now that he is a single man again? "No, not really. Occasionally I do house parties or something. I do enjoy being in the town. I've had a couple of nights in Glasgow, about a year ago, and that was good fun. It's always fun to go there and bump into some friends by accident."

Franchitti is far more comfortable talking about his career than himself. He squirms when asked about his social life, but despite the glittering career and Hollywood actress wife the pair never courted publicity. He politely stresses he isn't planning to change that. Like Jim Clark, Franchitti prefers to make his boldest statements on the track.

As our interview draws to a close, he's keen to get out on his mountain bike for a couple of hours before Marino and his young son Luca pay a visit.

One dream may have ended for Franchitti, but the persistent ache to be back in his homeland has been salved. "The best way to describe where I am is that one wonderful chapter has ended and I've started another in which I'm having a great time and enjoying life," he says.

And with that he bids farewell, slips out of the restaurant door and swiftly becomes just another face in the crowd - precisely the way he likes it.