IRL: Scott Dixon: anatomy of a champion

IRL: Scott Dixon: anatomy of a champion

Thanks to his breeding, boomerangs are something New Zealand native Scott Dixon knows intimately. After an up-and-down first Indy Racing League IndyCar season, in which he earned three wins, five MBNA poles, garnered nine front row starts - and...

Thanks to his breeding, boomerangs are something New Zealand native Scott Dixon knows intimately. After an up-and-down first Indy Racing League IndyCar season, in which he earned three wins, five MBNA poles, garnered nine front row starts - and also finished 16th or worse five times - Dixon finished on top, the very top after last Sunday's Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the final in a 16-race campaign.

Scott Dixon.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Dixon came into the final race having destiny in his hands. He was co-owner of the best record for the season, tied with Helio Castroneves at 467 points. All he needed to do, as Team Target team manager Mike Hull reminded the 23-year-old, was to win. "We told Scott on the radio it's real easy. All we have to do is win the race today."

No pressure there, right? "With Team Target, with the innovation and the development that they have, that is how we stayed on top of things throughout the year," Dixon emphasized while doing his victory tour of New York City - Scott's first visit to the Big Apple. "Every circuit we went to we were extremely competitive always, being the fastest in each session or for pole position.

"For a driver," he allowed, "that is something that is very hard to find. To be with a great team is a lot easier on myself. I have been able to learn a lot this year, basically from them. It is just going to be great to be back" with the team in 2004.

Of course owner Chip Ganassi has had that golden touch for quite a while. Even before Jimmy Vasser came on the scene, Michael Andretti and Eddie Cheever were both Ganassi drivers. Then Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya gave Ganassi those four titles and one Indianapolis 500 Mile Race wins in a row. In fact, when Roger Penske's fortunes were in direct wane, Ganassi's waxed like board soap.

Ganassi rates Dixon extremely highly on his hit parade. "The thing I like about Scott as a driver, I think I've said this before, he's got a great sense of humor, but at the same time he's all business when he's out at the track and in the car. We've had flamboyant drivers," and Zanardi comes immediately to mind, "but at the end of the day he's all business when it's time to get in the car like the other champions we've had."

Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
There were five guys in the running for this title after 15 races, separated by a mere 30 points. In addition to Castroneves, tied with Dixon at 467 points, Tony Kanaan had 460, Sam Hornish Jr. 448 and Gil de Ferran owned 437 points, yet still had a chance if his competitors found trouble. Three of 'em did, but it wasn't enough to get de Ferran the championship to go with his MBNA pole, most laps led and win in the Professor's final race.

"I thought it was a really cool day," Hull said. "The five guys that had a mathematical chance to win the championship raced against each other today. That's the way they raced all year long." Side by side, nose to tail over nearly 200 laps they ran. There were cautions that brought the average speed down to 156.2mph and there were only eleven official lead changes among six drivers. "I think with the race, everybody was looking at the same thing, making sure they stayed up front," Dixon noted.

Scott Dixon.
Photo by Greg Gage.
"I think the drivers competing for the championship raced the whole race, together, fighting it out, which there was no sort of mix-up in there with other people and things like that." It seemed as those anyone without a stake just let them go at it. "I thought that was pretty cool," the new champion admitted. "Just knowing that it was going to come down to the end."

Only it didn't. After the fifth of six caution flags, Castroneves and Kanaan nipped one another and had to make late pit stops for change of rubber. Before that, Hornish had retired to loud applause after leading 12 laps and running among the top five most of the afternoon. The reason was "spray", denoting a bit of oil emanating from the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8, the first sign of fallibility the new engine's shown. Hornish had, after his final pit stop been unable to get full power and retired on the 177th lap.

"I think it would have been a superb race to the finish with probably the four of us. I don't know," Dixon mused. It's the way it goes and you have got to take it as it comes. We have had plenty of those disappointments throughout the year. It was just time for them to have another one," he laughed self-consciously. "All and all, it was kind of strange the way the end of the race finished, with the crash and things like that, but you know, definitely everything went our way on Sunday."

The three-week lull between the penultimate race at California Speedway and the finale in Texas weighed on Dixon, having to do personal appearances because of his status as a championship contender. Finishing second to Hornish in that battle "was good, you just got off a weekend of racing. Then the next couple of weeks you are talking to everybody and they keep asking you, you know, is the pressure getting to you? The drag-on was definitely big. You just keep thinking about different scenarios and it was a difficult couple of weeks."

Dixon has aspirations to Formula One and has been working on that for the 2005 season, talking with people, notably Paul Stoddardt of Minardi "It's nice to have championships on your bio," Dixon shrugged. Next year, though belongs to Ganassi and Team Target and Dixon is looking forward to returning to the all-oval Indy Racing League.

Pitstop for Scott Dixon.
Photo by Robert Kurtycz.
"The team made it easier for me," adjusting to ovals only from his road racing background. "I think every sort of class of racing, starting go-karts on adds up. It's experience. Every day you are learning and I think the biggest turnaround point for me was joining Team Target" at the Milwaukee CART race last year. The PacWest Racing Group squad was disbanding and CART didn't want to lose his talents.

"It great to be with a first-rate team. You learn so much more just from the R&D, the plans they have for the future. It's great to be with someone that is always looking forward." Scott Dixon came from wealth, but it was practical not material, as parents Ron and Glenys both have a major background in the sport. He came to the United States like most do, for opportunity.

When it came to the last race and the title was on the line, "there were a lot of emotions, more so than any other race. I think it was probably the same for each of the five drivers, just because "It's a damn competitive series. I think the championship changed leaders during the race four or five times at least. It takes quite a person use there's the added stress. Everyone worked so hard throughout the year for it to come down to, you know, a couple of hours. That was really hard," Dixon said.

Scott Dixon celebrates championship.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
But the experience and the reward were worth it. "I think it was a hard move to come over to the IRL, with the all-oval experience. It's hard to determine what you are going to do from one day to the next. I totally enjoyed this year, thoroughly. It was definitely an experience and, you know, life takes different steps for most people."

Scott Dixon will be an excellent champion for the Indy Racing League, and his team owner knows it. "I think the championship changed leaders during the race four or five times at least. I can you my stomach was doing flip flops," Ganassi admitted. "These race drivers today have a lot of people tugging at their arms and spinning in their ears. It takes quite a person to keep all that in its proper perspective and do the job when they get behind the wheel. And Scott is that guy."

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