Why Scott Dixon is a five-time IndyCar champion

Scott Dixon’s latest triumph over his IndyCar rivals is well deserved, because his genius lies in the fact that he so often gets it right and very seldom gets it wrong, writes David Malsher.

The day after clinching the 2013 IndyCar championship, 2003 and 2008 title winner Scott Dixon murmured only half-joking, “I hope I don’t have to wait another five years for the next one…”

He didn’t. Just two years, in fact… and then three years for the next. So now he’s broken his tie with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti as a four-time Indy car champion to move onto a level of his own. Only AJ Foyt has won more championships.

Dixon has long been mixing it with the legends of the sport in the record book (although one shouldn’t take stats at face value: one of the greatest open-wheel racers this country has ever produced, Parnelli Jones, has only six Indy car wins to his name). In terms of race wins, Dixon had surpassed the brilliant Unser trio by the end of the 2016 season and this year moved ahead of Michael Andretti’s 42-win tally to take third in the all-time IndyCar winner list. While Scott used to say he didn’t care about statistics, that they were for savoring once he retired, he doesn’t say that any more because, frankly, he can’t ignore those facts and figures: he’s reminded every time he reaches another significant milestone.

For the record, Dixon’s total of 44 wins leaves him eight behind Mario Andretti, 23 behind Foyt, and at his current rate of progress, he may surpass Mario by the end of 2021, at the expiration of his latest Chip Ganassi Racing contract. Who knows what a 41-year-old Dixon might wish to do then, after more than 350 IndyCar races and 21 years at this level?

What can’t be denied is that, already past the 300-race mark and with 18 Indy car seasons under his wheels, Dixon is as fast as ever and as adaptable as ever because he is as motivated as ever. The first two points are a natural corollary of the third – to my mind, his greatest attribute.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda crosses the finish line under the checkered flag for the championship win

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

Yes, Ganassi pays well and also provides his drivers with top class human resources and equipment to get the job done, and undoubtedly that helps stoke motivation. But we can all name top-rank racers in Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR and beyond who have been blessed with similar facilities yet who, long before their 18th year at the top, lost their edge as the necessary work ethic started to fade. They may start to spend less time with their engineers, may not push so hard in the gym, may be less willing to test in the car or on the simulator, or may lose that can-do attitude that is so crucial in adapting to changing circumstances within a racecar. Lessen the intensity even half a percent in any or all of these areas and sustained success in racing will prove impossible.

Not a problem for Dixon. Because I covered the last few years of Champ Car and Ganassi had switched to the Indy Racing League in 2003, it wasn’t until the U.S. open-wheel merger in 2008 that I got to know Dixon a little and study him a lot. But I can’t recall any race in these last 11 seasons where I’ve seen or heard of Dixon throwing in the towel nor leaving his Ganassi crew feeling like he underperformed. Call it pride, call it desire, call it any U2 song you wish, in every session he gives everything.

By his own admission, Dixon hasn’t always known how much is ‘everything’. He once told me that after his dominant 2008 season, he expected 2009 would follow similar form, and he was taken aback by the work ethic of new teammate Franchitti.

Dario Franchitti, Target Chip Ganassi leads Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi

Photo by: Andy Sallee

He recalled: “There was one time, I can’t remember which track, where a couple of hours after qualifying had ended, I’d left the track, gone off to buy an ice cream or something. I eventually went back, heading for the motorhome, and as I’m going through the paddock, there’s Dario only just coming out of our engineering trailer with this big folder of notes and data and stuff. I’m like, ‘OK, that’s one approach…’. Yeah, Dario definitely taught me to do more homework.”

It paid off. Yes, Franchitti was the one who racked up the next three titles for Ganassi, but it was a rare race weekend when you saw the Target-sponsored cars separated by anything more than tactics or luck.

Oh, and driving styles. Franchitti was like Alain Prost, creating speed from smoothness and economy of steering movement, turning into corners fast and riding out the understeer. The process looked so slow and easy, it made a spectator feel he or she could race an IndyCar to victory. Dixon’s style was less proactive, more reactive, a reflex match with the vagaries of car handling and physics.

“Yeah, but it’s really weird, man,” reflected Dixon. “Our driving styles are completely different but our car setups are so close – almost identical. We’ll ask for exactly the same car except for maybe a stiffer rear spring at one track, or a slightly different front ride-height at another. Really small stuff. So I can’t figure that one out, but whatever, we both seem to be fast – couple of circuits where he’s better, couple where I’m better, but usually about the same.

“I just need to borrow Dario’s lucky horseshoe,” he concluded with his lopsided grin.

That was 2011. The next two years, aside from not being collected by the spinning Takuma Sato in the 2012 Indy 500, Franchitti took on the mantle of Target’s bad luck target, culminating in his horrendous career-ending shunt at Houston. And since Dario’s enforced abandonment of the #10 CGR car’s cockpit, Ganassi’s victory hopes over the last five year have – with two or three exceptions – rested entirely with Dixon.

Predictably he has responded. When he took only sixth in the 2016 championship, Ganassi’s last year with Chevrolet, it was the first time in 10 years that Dixon had finished outside the top three in the final standings and he was a more than a tad perplexed that Ganassi had the same equipment as Penske but he could only chalk up two wins to the Simon Pagenaud/Will Power combined total of nine. Desperation, born of frustration, led to an ill-fated passing attempt on Helio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio.

So how would he react when Chip switched his team to Honda power for 2017, and thereby acquired the lesser of the two manufacturer aerokits for the majority of tracks? The answer was, ‘magnificently’. The now-hallowed #9 car visited victory lane only once and yet, despite a horrific early crash at the double-points Indy 500, Dixon finished the season splitting the four-car Penske team on the points table. His sheer consistency, his ability to turn water into wine, had kept him in the fight all the way to the final checkered flag. Projecting that performance onto 2018 when everyone would have the same spec Dallara aero package so Dixon was no longer at a technical disadvantage to the Penskes, then providing his race engineer Chris Simmons – along with Julian Robertson and Phillip Bowskill – got their sums right, Dixon would surely triumph.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

If that sounds like oversimplified theorizing, it has in fact been borne out by this season past. Across 17 races, Dixon finished top five in 13 of them including nine appearances on the podium. Alexander Rossi, Will Power and Josef Newgarden all matched his win tally of three, yet they accumulated ‘only’ ten, eight and six top-fives respectively. Better than any driver in Ganassi history, therefore, Dixon this year epitomized Chip Ganassi’s philosophy of, ‘If you can’t win, be second; if you can’t finish second, be third…’ etc.

Like every topline driver in every season in every race series, Dixon can look back on the 2018 season and cite three or four potential wins that got away. But surely he alone could, hand-on-heart, absolve himself of blame for his wins-that-might-have-been. When he’s in a position of prominence, it’s extremely unusual for Dixon to commit a significant error.

“Scott sees the race globally,” said his longtime strategist and Ganassi managing director Mike Hull after IndyCar’s final Grand Prix of Sonoma. “He’s always watching the race from the cockpit. He understands what’s going on around the entire racetrack. He truly understands what he has to do.

“He [also] understands the art of recovery extremely well. He doesn’t give up. We don’t give up. There have been times when we left the racetrack knowing we could have done better than we did, but we accept the reality of what happened.”

In the course of the post-race press conference, Hull took full responsibility for the Long Beach pitlane blunder – service in a closed pit –  that dropped Dixon outside the Top 10. Given Dixon’s absurd consistency through the rest of the season, had he failed to win this year’s championship, that Sunday in April would, perhaps unfairly, have been cited by fans and media as the day Dixon lost the championship. Instead, we can easily find days that could be considered title clinchers. As the dusk closed in last Sunday, I asked Dixon if he felt the season’s turning point had been the Toronto race, when he won and all four of his title rivals – Rossi, Power, Hunter-Reay and Newgarden – made fundamental driving errors.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Jake Galstad / LAT Images

Dixon remarked: “I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s good to see! But…that was just after midway in the season, right? You know there’s still plenty of time [for rivals] to rebound in the points. Portland [the penultimate race] I think was huge for us as far as luck and being able to come out of that pile-up… When the dust cleared, I could see I still had four wheels on the car, the engine was running, I had the clutch in to try and drive away. At that point I knew that day was going to be good.”

He may play down his skill in the situation, suggest he got lucky, but his only good fortune was that a badly-timed full-course caution damaged Rossi’s authentic challenge for victory. How Dixon’s own race transpired was because he had the presence of mind to 1) scrub off a lot of speed on the asphalt before centrifugal force dragged him off track and into the sandy mêlée, so he minimized his impact with the wrecked cars, and 2) pull in the clutch to prevent himself stalling, so he didn’t have to wait for the Safety Team to bumpstart him and possibly leave him a lap down.

As any veteran campaigner like Dixon will tell you, there are no races more crucial than others, besides the Indy 500 and the season finale which both pay double points. In any race, if you win and your rivals drop out, it’s a crucial day in terms of points gained; if you join all your title rivals in retirement, then it’s a crucial day because you failed to capitalize on their misfortune. In the end, a successful championship challenge is all about accumulation of points, which involves making the best of every circumstance more often than your rivals can and making fewer mistakes. At present in IndyCar, Dixon is peerless at these two fundamentals.

One media member last Sunday evening asked him if he ever thinks of himself as ‘The Standard’, the guy who everyone else has to go through to earn a championship.

“No, I don’t,” he replied. “It’s weird, I love the sport. It drives me in many ways, continues to. I’ve never lost the fire. Each year that I’ve been beat or even [after] bad races, you get this kind of fire and this anger inside of you.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda celebrates in victory lane with team owner Chip Ganassi

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

“I love doing what I do. I hope that I can, for the team’s sake, compete on the highest level to get there. But at no point do I think that anybody has to come through me to get to a championship.”

He’s wrong, of course. They all do. And it will surely remain so for as long as he remains where he is. Years like this, I ventured, must surely remind him why he re-signed with Ganassi for another three years rather than take that McLaren option…

“Actually, yeah, I’m happy to be back with Chip. When I look back at the first meeting [with] Chip to where it is today, what we’ve achieved, what his team has achieved, I’m a very small piece in that whole wheelhouse of what’s going on at Chip Ganassi Racing. I feel very lucky to work with the people that I do.

“Chip goes out there and gets the people that get the job done. There’s been years where we’ve struggled and haven’t had the results. But Chip has a big heart. He can come across harsh, brash, but he’s always been a good friend of mine. There was definitely a period throughout this year where we were talking to other people, but it just felt right [to stay]. It felt like this was home, somewhere that I should stick for the time being.”

And being Dixon, he performs at the very highest level, nowhere near that cruise-and-collect-the-paycheck mode mentioned earlier.

As Hull puts it: “[Scott] comes to work every day like it’s the first day that he’s ever come to work. He never has grown tired of driving the car. There’s probably some days he grows tired of talking to your group, but in terms of driving the car, he’s all-in, every day.

“When it’s not good for him on a given day, he wants to make it better. When it’s better, he wants to make it even better. He spends a lot of time in the building between races. He spends a lot of time with the people who have their hands on his car and their minds on his car…

“And then he backs it up – he can drive a racecar. He understands fully what the car is capable of doing on that day for him. He doesn’t push it past that very often.”

Nor does he need to. Experience, knowledge, hard work and – no doubting it – a colossal amount of talent means Dixon can set the car up the way he wants and drive it to its limit without significant error, hence the five championships. I’m reliably informed he’s even learned to make understeer work for him, and while he still has the motivation and capacity to learn, adapt and improve, there’s no reason why Dixon can’t match Foyt’s record of seven Indy car titles before he eventually calls time on a magnificent career.

Regardless of whether he succeeds in this quest, make no mistake that Scott Dixon has long since joined the icons of Indy car racing on their very exclusive plateau. What should cause alarm for Dixon’s rivals is that his fifth championship was the most convincing yet. Just how much better can he become?

Champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, wife Emma and kids Tilly and Poppy

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

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