IRL: Dixon talking positive for this season

New Zealand native Scott Dixon has seen all sides of the racing world and has experienced highs and lows within that framework. The driver of Target Chip Ganassi Racing's ...

New Zealand native Scott Dixon has seen all sides of the racing world and has experienced highs and lows within that framework.

The driver of Target Chip Ganassi Racing's #9 Target Panoz/Toyota/Firestone entry in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series is hoping that 2005 becomes a mirror image of his successful entry year of 2003, when Dixon amassed three victories, five pole positions and eleven top-10 results in 16 races.

Last season's 16-event campaign was another story as Dixon, the reigning IndyCar Series champion had to contend with all kinds of trouble, some self- inflicted and others thrust upon him. Saddled with new rules that mandated different engines for the first part of the year and from the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race onwards, Dixon discovered his team's choice wasn't a winner.

The engine swaps created problems for Dixon, his teammate Darren Manning and any other driver who had a Toyota. The 2003 engine champ book-ended the season with wins in the first and final races and was pretty much nowhere for the balance of the year. It was not a great way to celebrate the titles achieved a year earlier.

Dixon dropped to tenth in the IRL standings by the time the ultimate checkered flags flew in the Chevy 500 on Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile high-banked oval. After leading 748 laps in his championship year, the Kiwi led only three in 2004 and was forced to withdraw from the League's first race at the famed Milwaukee Mile last July, the venue where Dixon joined Team Target in 2002.

The 2005 IRL season marks Scott Dixon's third full year with Ganassi's outfit. By now, he's accustomed to Ganassi's manner of conducting business and knows his way around nearly all of the stops on the 17-event docket.

No doubt Dixon is looking forward to this weekend's return to the Valley of the Sun and Phoenix International Raceway, site of his best 2004 finish as runner-up to repeat victor Tony Kanaan. "I know what to do with the car on short ovals and we've got a reasonable setup to run on them."

At one point in his championship season, Scott would tell anyone within earshot that he was taken with the short ovals. It showed in his successes on them, but the 24-year-old is circumspect about his chances: "You always like tracks where you win or do well. I'm hoping we can translate our good test at Phoenix [International Raceway] into results."

Results are the name of the game, after all. Dixon got caught up in the "big one" at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week and a half ago and fell out of the season opening Toyota Indy 300, leaving only Manning - of three Team Target drivers this year - to carry the banner to the checkered flags in sixth.

Dixon hopes to be [at least] the top Target driver after Sunday's XM Satellite Radio Indy 200 Presented by Argent Mortgage on the reconfigured, fast PIR mile. "Phoenix is a tough track and since they changed the turn two wall that used to jut out onto the surface it's quite different," he advised.

"In qualifying on the Phoenix oval you're flat-out; it seems like it's always hot there and that adds [some complexity] to setting up the car," Dixon related. "I always look forward to Phoenix and think we might have a chance, running the 3-liter engine for the first time on that track."

Last year at PIR he and the balance of Toyota's troops had their 3.5-liter power mills that were not quite up to Honda's similar 8-cylinder units. "Honda had a power advantage all last year for sure, but that gets taken away at a track like PIR where handling plays such a big part," Dixon explained. "Trying to keep up to speed, it's important to have a car that's comfortable."

In 2004 Dixon now states he "did get frustrated" with Toyota's inability to compete on a level playing field with Honda. "But we've got to make positives from it. We won't really see improvements until Twin Ring Motegi and Indy," Dixon said, "because both of the Japanese engine makers pull out all the stops for those two races.

"Any way we can pick up speed is good. I'd like to see more parity for all engine makers," he revealed. "We're looking toward the 500; we should have something good there. For specific races we just try to see what's important [to getting forward in a competitive 22-car field] and work from there. I'm really looking forward to the short tracks because I think we've got an opportunity to do well."

While he had a single teammate in both his 2003 championship run and last year, Scott Dixon now has two squadmates. Manning, returning for a second season is from the United Kingdom and rookie Ryan Briscoe joins the tour from Australia. "Darren wants to get out there," he laughed, referring to party man Manning, "but Ryan and I are a bit more quiet.

"Ryan's done a great job so far, even with his rough first weekend at Homestead (where the Aussie crashed in practice and in the 200-lap race). Having a lot more data to share helps us all because with so little testing it's all about track time these days. That's the advantage; having three of us helps the team get stronger," Dixon recounted.

The toughest competitors to the three-car Ganassi team this year comes from the usual source, Andretti Green Racing's Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and season opening race winner Dan Wheldon, Dixon believes. He also sees threats from Rahal Letterman Racing (Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira, Danica Patrick) and, of course the two-car Marlboro Team Penske group that has the same Toyota engine Dixon and Co. utilize.

"The three street and road course races (at St. Petersburg, Infineon Raceway Sears Point and Watkins Glen International) may change results and weed out those unfamiliar with road- and street-course racing," said Dixon. "It might be an equalizer for the championship but good teams and drivers always end up at the top."

There's "always pressure from [team owner] Chip [Ganassi] to succeed and he's had a pretty rough start to the year in the IRL and Grand Am series. We're not doing anything different - that's a great part about this team," Dixon related.

"We may not have an equal car" to the competition, but Scott Dixon is looking at this weekend's contest - and the balance of the tenth anniversary IndyCar Series season - like he can win, show and place on any given weekend.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Darren Manning , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Ryan Briscoe , Chip Ganassi , Vitor Meira
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing