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.
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
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.