Flat Spot On – Dixon Closes in On History

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 24 2020

Scott Dixon has proven to be one of auto racing’s all-time greats. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram |Senior Writer

Will it make any difference in the eyes of fans if Scott Dixon claims his sixth IndyCar championship on the St. Petersburg street and airport course this weekend? That would pull him within one of tying A.J. Foyt’s seven titles. Should he win his 51st career race as well, he’d be within one victory of Mario Andretti’s career total.

But just as the ever-smooth Jimmie Johnson, who succeeded Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as a seven-time NASCAR champion, Dixon is a very different character from the legends of IndyCar who preceded him. Despite all the success on track, there’s a running debate on whether Dixon belongs in the same pantheon as IndyCar racing’s other statistical leaders.

Comparing him to Foyt and Andretti (which leaves out the Unser brothers and Rick Mears, among others, in the modern era), Dixon is no doubt different. But just as with my view of Johnson in NASCAR, it’s the smoothness and consistency on the track, which now includes an impressive record by Dixon in GT and sports prototypes, that counts most.

Foyt and Andretti were outsized characters in the golden era of modern motor racing, which helped make competitors seem larger than life. They drove all manner of cars at a time when technical advances made racing more dangerous and when television and the print media’s major outlets, which enjoyed increasingly larger footprints, shed bright, hallowing light on the sound and fury that was the Indy 500, Monaco, Le Mans and Daytona.  


A.J. could be combustive, combative, or hilarious on any given day, which never failed to keep competitors, sponsors, sanctioning bodies and journalists off balance. It gradually dawned on me, through conversations with guys like Tony Stewart while covering Indy Racing League events, that at least half of Foyt’s temper tantrums were the calculated effort of a shrewd guy who knew how to work situations to his benefit. But when A.J. really did blow his stack, in the words of his father Tony, it was like “dancing with a chain saw.”

A.J. Foyt and fellow American Dan Gurney got a historic victory at Le Mans in 1967.

Before we gained mutual respect, Foyt once tried to stuff me into the window of a Porsche 935 in the paddock at Sebring, a contretemps that began after I took exception when he called me a three-syllable word about something I’d written—a story which proved to be accurate. At that time, 1985, Foyt was already in the process of reviving his career by driving IMSA sports cars after his right arm had been nearly severed at Michigan in 1981. Following that injury, he went from a phenomenal talent to an excellent IndyCar driver as he fought advancing age and the challenges presented by the engineering effectiveness of rival CART team owners. (It was an ill-fated chassis set-up decision that put him into the Armco barriers at Michigan.)

The “other” Michigan story that sticks out most about A.J. is the USAC stock car race on the high-banked oval in 1974, where he had a terrific duel with Bobby Unser. According to a story by William Nack in Sports Illustrated, A.J. saw Unser’s car start to slide in a passing attempt, getting out of shape and soon to be out of control at 170 mph. Foyt intentionally turned down and hit Unser’s car, which straightened out his adversary – and they continued racing. Foyt ultimately won and when he saw Unser afterward, he said, “Saved your ass, didn’t I?”

Mario Andretti was another IndyCar legend who became more accessible to journalists when he went sports car racing. Although he could be friendly, Mario is a deep, thoughtful person and during his racing days had a quiet way of using that persona and charisma to his advantage. When it came to disputes, Andretti was major league all the way about protecting his position and never shy about venting his anger by using incisive, cutting comments.

Andretti once tried to slug Michael Roe on the podium after a race in the SCCA Runoffs at Road Atlanta, where son Michael and the Irishman had a disagreement on track in the Formula Ford race. But I don’t recall any other physical intimidation. My favorite comment by Mario came after Danny Sullivan won the Indy 500 with his “spin and win” in Turn 1. A disbelieving Mario eventually came up on the short end of their duel that day. “I gave him the bait,” he said dryly of the incident, shaking his head in disbelief.

Mario Andretti chats with Al Unser Jr. at Indy.

What most impressed me on the track about Mario was that 52nd victory, which came at age 53 on the oval at Phoenix. He raced flat stick for over three decades at the sharp end of the field and was always a winner, even if the cruel luck meant only a single victory in the Indy 500 and a win at the Le Mans 24-hour eluded him. But it was not by chance that Andretti won so many races and a Formula 1 championship—in the same race Lotus teammate Ronnie Petersen suffered a fatal injury—without sustaining any serious injuries. 

Dixon is another driver who became easier to get to know at IMSA sports car events, because getting the most out of an IndyCar on a race weekend is such an intense task and the competitive complexion can change rapidly. Drivers and teams are usually preoccupied. 

Born in Australia and raised in New Zealand, Dixon tends more toward Andretti’s thoughtful personality, albeit without the Italian-bred philosophy. In either case, a reflective race car driver is rare, because it’s a sport that demands such decisive thinking. Like all the guys at the top, Dixon lets you know where he’s coming from in times of controversy, such as the ending to this year’s Indy 500, where he opined winner Takuma Sato would have run out of fuel absent the ending under yellow. But it’s always a cool, considered delivery.

Driver Scott Dixon is congratulated by team owner Chip Ganassi after winning IndyCar Series championship No. 5.

Perhaps like Andretti, the Kiwi may end up with a great career with only one win in the 500 despite all the laps led. Because he is so smooth and consistent, errors like Dixon’s spin at Mid-Ohio last month stand out. The points chase has gotten considerably tighter since then and here’s Dixon’s thoughts on why. I talked with him at the Petit Le Mans, where he co-drove to a fourth over-all victory in a major endurance event including the Rolex 24 at Daytona, this one with the team of Wayne Taylor.

“This year, we got off to a great start and had a very big points lead and it’s kind of dwindled over the last few weekends,” he said of his Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team. “That has been frustrating. I definitely made a big mistake at Mid-Ohio, which I regret. I think team-wise, it’s been about not necessarily strategy, but how you prepare for the weekend. There’s really no track time now. Typically, you have more time. We’ve got a lot more downtime, and simulation has kind of been taking over the testing program. I think we took a very wrong direction two or three meetings ago and it’s kind of hurt our performance. So, there’s a lot of self-assessments going on. With a big lead you just don’t want to go sideways before you get to the finish.”

Known as a young guy who didn’t mind partying, the once chubby-cheeked Dixon settled down by his early twenties. Among his more modern peers such as Dario Franchitti, Dixon has maintained a relatively low-key image while turning in the performances that statistically have him among the all-time greats. I think the only real difference between him and the legends are the times in which he has raced, which are less larger-than-life than the 1960s and 1970s. But it’s not as if IndyCar hasn’t been dangerous. The year of his arrival in CART’s Indy Lights series two CART drivers were killed in crashes and his former Indy Lights teammate, Tony Renna, died in a testing accident at Indy in 2003. The sport has lost two more drivers since then.

Like quite a few of the New Zealanders, Dixon is a palpably nice guy. A personality like Bruce McLaren comes to mind, about whom a bad word was rarely said. (In Dixon’s case, there are trolls who take exception, but that’s more a sign of the times where anyone who stands out draws the illness that can be social media.) It seems clear that Dixon tries to help fans by providing insight, which generally gives him a chance to make sure his side of the story gets heard, which is a pretty classy way of going racing.

From the outset of his career at PacWest Racing, my favorite Dixon victory has always been the fuel mileage score turned in at Nazareth at the age of 20, which took a helluva lot of skill and moxie for such a young driver. He made it impossible for Kenny Brack to get past, so more than fuel mileage was involved. It was part of a rookie season in CART where Dixon finished an amazing eighth in the points and might have done better with a few breaks. (That story is now available in behind-the-scenes detail in “Time Flies,” a history of PacWest written by John Oreovicz.)

After rising rapidly through the lower ranks in his native country and in Indy Lights, Dixon’s consistency and dedication has been amazing, aided in no small part by a 19-year run with Ganassi, which has also given him plenty of opportunities in sports cars.

“It’s nice to have your name mentioned with people I’ve idolized and looked up to all my life,” said Dixon of Foyt and Andretti. “They’re really important to a sport that I’ve come to love. But honestly, for me it’s a team effort. It’s not what I’ve done it’s what the team has done. I feel fortunate that 99 percent of those wins have been with one team. It’s a very good team. It’s nothing I’ve done by myself. It’s something we’ve all done together. You just hope that the winning continues.”

One suspects the victories and championships will continue to be part of Dixon’s career at Ganassi, which will do more than anything else to settle debates about his standing. 

“When you’re in any situation, you want to keep winning,” he said. “That’s the main goal, that’s what’s pushing me and what drives me. Hopefully when you’re done, you’re happy with what you’ve accomplished, but it’s not the sort of thing I focus on. I focus on the racing and the enjoyment I get out of that and the competition.”

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. His current book is “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” Autographed copies are available at www.jingrambooks.com)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 24 2020
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  • Mr. GL Raehn says:

    There are a lot of things that contribute to one being famous in any sport and regardless of what anyone says, LUCK is a main ingredient to fame. There are some drivers in IndyCar considered great that I would never were I a car owner and we could have all the greats at one time. There are some I would do anything to get. Because I had the opportunity to be an official at Indy, I was able to get to know most of the drivers during my 15 years officiating. One of the quotes that will always stick in mymine, is one time we were in a garage on qual day and it was raining cats and dogs. Gary B was one of the hot dogs that year. A driver with less success was sitting with Gary and I and were talking about speed. Al, the other driver, and no he was not an Unser, asked Gary, “Where are backing off for1?” Gary looked at him very seriously and said, “Al, I don’t back off. If you want to run really fast, I will tell you a secret. You go out there and you run as hard as you can possibly run knowing full well if you run any harder, you will crash, and then you run harder!” The other driver, in this case Al, looked at Gary as all the blood rushed from his face having heard what Gary told him. He rose, said, “See ya all later.” and walked out. Sometime later, we saw him in his “civvies” with his suitcase. Gary called out to him and walked over toward Al. Later he told me that having heard what Gary had told him the secret to being fast, he decided racing was not for him after all and he was on his way home, done forever with racing. I asked Gary, “Were you serious with what you told him?” His reply was short and truthful: “I would never have allowed him to leave that day if I were not 100% honest and serious.” And now my friends, you know the truth to being fast.