Dixon laps up chance to join greats

This week­end, Scott Dixon will at­tempt to win his fifth Indy­car ti­tle. But what makes the Kiwi mo­tor­sport icon tick? Ben Stan­ley went to Madison, Illi­nois, to try to find out.

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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.

‘‘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 comes to Indy­cars 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 is as re­laxed and gen­uine as any ath­lete you’d hope to meet.

When Sun­day Star Times 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 as he was in-race tech­nique or his own legacy as a driver.

Yet while Dixon now holds a nearhis­toric 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.’’

De­spite fin­ish­ing sec­ond in his last two races, and win­ning 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. ‘‘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] be­fore you start prac­tice again, so the loss of sleep was prob­a­bly the big­gest down­side to it.’’ Worse was to come. Dixon’s car was clipped by Jay Howard on the 53rd lap of the main race, send­ing the Kiwi fly­ing into the track­side hoard­ings. In­cred­i­bly, the Kiwi walked away with just a frac­tured an­kle. ‘‘Any of those ac­ci­dents, man, ev­ery­thing slows down,’’ Dixon says. ‘‘It feels like it takes a good five min­utes to get through it. I was su­per-lucky there, too. The way the car hit what it hit, when it hit, and the way it had three mo­ments to dis­tort the power of it.’’ Two days af­ter the crash, Dixon was back in Chip Ganassi’s In­di­anapo­lis work­shop to see if he could use his in­jured an­kle to ap­ply pres­sure on his car’s brakes.

Ask peo­ple about Dixon away from the race­track and the im­age of a low-key, fam­ily-ori­en­tated bloke is quickly as­sem­bled.

Af­ter mar­ry­ing for­mer Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth Games run­ner Emma Davies in 2008, the Bris­bane-born south Auck­lan­der has set­tled down to life in In­di­anapo­lis’ trendier north­ern sub­urbs where the cou­ple raise their daugh­ters Poppy, 8, and Tilly, 6.

‘‘He could have eas­ily bought a big man­sion in Mi­ami, bought a pri­vate jet and lived the good life – but he has lived in In­di­anapo­lis since day one,’’ Cun­ning­ham, a long-time friend, says.

While Indy­car crews are back to work first thing on Mon­day af­ter a race week­end, driv­ers have more flex­i­ble hours. For Dixon, that means do­ing the usual dad stuff.

‘‘Most Mon­days, Tues­days, Wed­nes­days and Thurs­days, I take my kids to school and pick them,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s swim­ming on Mon­days [and] bal­let on Tues­days. Horse-rid­ing on Wed­nes­days. I’m very for­tu­nate on that side of things. ‘‘

Dixon’s wife trav­els to ‘‘around 75 per cent’’ of the races, while their kids at­tend about half.

Dixon, who trains for triathlons in his free time, says his daugh­ters un­der­stand parts of their dad’s job – but mostly just en­joy the race week­end en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘Poppy is more aware of it – Tilly is more low-key, any­way,’’ he says. ‘‘But they live in In­di­anapo­lis, which is very rich in rac­ing – and all their friends know about it.

‘‘I think the whole Indy­car se­ries is very fam­ily-ori­en­tated. If you go to the mo­torhome lot most week­ends, all the kids are run­ning around and they get to hang with their friends. They en­joy that.

‘‘Do they grasp all of it? Prob­a­bly not yet. Poppy started to ask about hav­ing a go on a go-kart, which is pretty funny. Tilly not at all – she’s into horses.’’

The Dixons have be­come cen­tral in the driv­ers’ sup­port net­work on tour.

Fol­low­ing the in-race death of close friend Dan Whel­don in 2011, the fam­ily moved to St Peters­burg, Florida, for a brief stint to stay with the English driver’s griev­ing fam­ily.

Cun­ning­ham says Dixon – who has had a doc­u­men­tary crew fol­low­ing him around for the ma­jor­ity of this sea­son – is uni­ver­sally liked by his fel­low driv­ers, while his per­son­al­ity has res­onated amongst the wider In­di­anapo­lis com­mu­nity.

‘‘He re­mem­bers strangers’ names re­ally well,’’ Cun­ning­ham says. ‘‘He’ll see some­one out in a so­cial set­ting, and al­ways re­mem­bers their name. He makes peo­ple feel spe­cial.’’

Given Dixon’s ob­vi­ous love of a rel­a­tively nor­mal fam­ily life – and his Indy­car longevity – the re­tire­ment ques­tion is al­ways one lev­elled at the Kiwi.

Strip away the glam­our and mo­tor­sport is a tough gig. The travel is con­stant, the pres­sure huge – and the risks im­mense.

‘‘When there is a tragedy or even an ac­ci­dent like In­di­anapo­lis, it is a com­mon ques­tion,’’ Dixon says. ‘‘I’ve al­ways known mo­tor rac­ing is dan­ger­ous – that’s part of it – but I couldn’t imag­ine giv­ing up on terms like that.

‘‘I’ve just turned 37. Juan Pablo Mon­toya and Tony Kanaan are both 42 this year. It’s easy to kinda put a round num­ber on it. Most peo­ple look at 40 to 42 to be the num­ber, but, for me, it’ll be if I feel like I’m not com­pet­i­tive any more. That’ll be the turn for me to look at a dif­fer­ent kind of se­ries.

‘‘But I feel like I am still very com­pet­i­tive. This sea­son has been very strong, con­sid­er­ing the bad patch we had. But, yeah, I don’t know. It’s one of those things that when the time comes, it comes.’’

The re­cent mail around Amer­i­can mo­tor­sport cir­cles is that Palmer­ston North’s Brendon Hart­ley is likely to re­place Brazil­ian Tony Kanaan at Chip Ganassi Rac­ing next year.

With the team un­der­stood to be cut­ting Max Chilton and Char­lie Kim­ball to be­come a two-car unit again, Hart­ley, a Euro­pean speed­car pro and ex-F1 test driver, and Dixon could form an all-Kiwi lineup for Chip Ganassi.

While re­tire­ment is un­likely on the hori­zon for the Old Dog just yet, Hart­ley’s pres­ence along­side Dixon does hold a nice nar­ra­tive blend for Kiwi mo­tor­sport fans.

Over time, torches al­ways get passed. In terms of sin­gle-seat suc­cess, Dixon’s achieve­ments in the US have placed him firmly in the lin­eage of our finest mo­tor­sport gen­er­a­tion – F1 driv­ers Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dixon met Amon as a teenager, has since met McLaren’s daugh­ter – and fea­tures in Roger Don­ald­son’s re­cent doc­u­men­tary McLaren.

‘‘It’s fun to hear the sto­ries – that gen­er­a­tion was so much dif­fer­ent. It would have been a re­ally fun gen­er­a­tion to be a part of, but also the safety as­pect of it was very tough.

‘‘We’re lucky to be in this gen­er­a­tion but, I think, to be in that gen­er­a­tion in that time of chang­ing tech­nol­ogy and ex­cite­ment of dif­fer­ent cars, it would have been re­ally cool.’’

The track has had plenty of twists and curves since that day in Puke, and even his first CART – now Indy­car – out­ing in 2001, but ask Dixon about how much of that kid in the Sen­tra at Puke is still in­side and you’ll get a big grin.

‘‘You know, I heard a funny story the other day from a Kiwi that helped me along the way,’’ Dixon says.

‘‘He was talk­ing about another driver, and he was like ‘oh man, I just don’t think he has enough mon­grel in him, like you’.

‘‘I laughed, be­cause I don’t see my­self that way. It was quite a funny de­scrip­tion of the strug­gles we had, but I think that helps in so many ways through­out your ca­reer when you come from not much.

‘‘ I was very quiet back then and I think that I’ve come out of my shell a lit­tle bit.

‘‘But as I think as far as the ba­sics go – as far as me the driver goes – I’m very sim­i­lar.’’

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

USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Scott Dixon says he will con­tinue to race un­til he no longer feels com­pet­i­tive. Scott Dixon, who is air­borne, es­caped with just a bro­ken an­kle from this spec­tac­u­lar crash dur­ing the In­di­anapo­lis 500 in May.

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