Kiwi Dixon lap­ping up p

Sunday News - - MOTORSPORT - BEN STAN­LEY

LAST Oc­to­ber, Scott Dixon’s nieces wanted to go to a Justin Bieber con­cert in Auck­land.

A ra­dio sta­tion was run­ning a com­pe­ti­tion – the caller who got the most fa­mous New Zealan­der to ring in, would win the tick­ets. The girls bad­gered their Mum, Scott’s sis­ter, who got her US-based mo­tor­sport icon of a brother to ring in.

‘‘I called up, but on the other line was Sir Colin Meads,’’ Dixon says.

‘‘I was like ‘man, I’ve lost this for sure’. He was bat­tling cancer and in hos­pi­tal at the time, I think. That’s the only time I got to speak to him, on the ra­dio show.

‘‘We were all on the call to­gether – he seemed like a re­ally pleas­ant guy. When it comes to New Zealand, you couldn’t beat Pine­tree.’’

When it has come to Indycar rac­ing over the last 15 years, the same could vir­tu­ally be said of Dixon. To­mor­row the 37-year-old Kiwi will squeeze into the cock­pit of his Chip Ganassi Rac­ing car at Sonoma Race­way in Cal­i­for­nia and at­tempt to win his fifth Indycar ti­tle.

Only three points short of Team Penske’s Josef New­gar­den ahead of Sonoma, Dixon could be­come just the sec­ond sin­gle-seat driver in Amer­i­can mo­tor­sport his­tory, af­ter le­gend AJ Foyt, to claim five.

If he wins the Sonoma Grand Prix, he’ll equal Michael An­dretti with 42 ca­reer race vic­to­ries. Only Foyt and An­dretti’s fa­mous fa­ther Mario, both Amer­i­cans, have more.

‘‘Once he gets into the high-40s, or mid-40s, you’d have to con­sider him one of the great­est of all-time,’’ for­mer Indycar driver Wade Cun­ning­ham says of his fel­low Kiwi’s record.

But while he re­mains the dar­ling of New Zealand’s mo­tor­sport com­mu­nity, Dixon oc­cu­pies a pe­cu­liar po­si­tion in Kiwi sport­ing hearts and minds.

De­spite be­ing a reg­u­lar con­tender at the Hal­berg Awards, his pro­file re­mains muted back in New Zealand. His achieve­ments are ac­knowl­edged but, at the same time, re­mote. One could ar­gue his Amer­i­can base has helped that, though NBA su­per­star Steven Adams has man­aged to carve a sub­stan­tial niche in Kiwi pub­lic life.

The truth of the mat­ter may well lie in the per­son­al­ity of the driver him­self. For all his on-track suc­cess, Dixon, who has also com­peted in the Le Mans 24-Hour race the last two years, is as re­laxed and gen­uine as any ath­lete you’d hope to meet.

When Stuff in­ter­viewed him in the Chip Ganassi team trailer ahead of a re­cent race in Madi­son, Illi­nois – where he’d fin­ish sec­ond – Dixon was just as happy to chat about a Taupo bach hol­i­day last sum­mer or the up­com­ing May­weather- McGre­gor fight as he was in-race tech­nique or his own legacy as a driver.

Yet while Dixon now holds a near-his­toric driver’s re­sume, has a wife, two kids and a true ath­lete’s build, you don’t have to squint that hard to see that kid with a pil­low strapped to his back­side driv­ing a Nis­san Sen­tra in Pukekohe all those years ago. The grin is still as boy­ish as it was back when he was driv­ing karts and sa­loon cars.

On the race­way, you know where those 20-odd years have gone though. Ice pumps through Dixon’s veins. His mind be­comes a com­plete, con­stantly mov­ing ra­tio­nal cal­cu­lus of fuel spent and op­ti­mal speeds. On track, the Kiwi picks up ex­actly what he needs – and dis­re­gards the rest.

‘‘He just puts things be­hind him – he doesn’t get too emo­tional on what’s hap­pen­ing,’’ Dixon’s chief me­chanic Blair Ju­lian, a New Ply­mouth na­tive, says.

‘‘Whether it be a prac­tice ses­sion in St Louis, one the fol­low­ing week in Detroit or over­com­ing his in­juries, he just fo­cuses on what’s at hand. He’s got the abil­ity, men­tally, to block out a lot. It sep­a­rates him from most of the other guys.’’

TOUGH TIMES

De­spite fin­ish­ing sec­ond in his last two races, and claim­ing vic­tory at the Kohler Grand Prix in Wis­con­sin in late June, the sec­ond half of Dixon’s sea­son has been tougher than the first.

Though still adapt­ing to a new en­gine man­u­fac­turer (Honda) and aero kit, Dixon topped the driver stand­ings af­ter qual­i­fy­ing for the In­di­anapo­lis 500 with the fastest time in 21 years. A sec­ond vic­tory at the Brick­yard – his first came in 2008 – seemed within reach.

That night, how­ever, Dixon and re­tired Scot­tish driver Dario Fran­chitti were mugged at a Taco Bell just down the street from the speed­way.

‘‘Go­ing from win­ning pole at the big­gest race in the world to a few hours later, Dario and I get­ting held up at gun­point – it brings things into re­al­ity rather quickly,’’ Dixon says.

‘‘[But] the rac­ing is al­ways some­what of a good dis­trac­tion away from what could have oc­curred. Look­ing into that sit­u­a­tion a lit­tle bit more, and hear­ing a lit­tle bit more about the peo­ple in­volved and the gangs, it could have gone a lot worse.

‘‘You know, dur­ing the month of May, it’s so busy any­way. Com­ing off that, you’ve just got to switch gears and get on with it. I think the big­gest detri­ment was [the po­lice] found them and called us in at one in the morn­ing to go and ID them.

‘‘You’re tak­ing pho­tos the next morn­ing at 6.30am [at the track]

Scott Dixon is chas­ing a record-equalling fifth Indycar series ti­tle in Cal­i­for­nia to­mor­row, and in­set, with his wife Emma and daugh­ters Poppy and Tilly.

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