Indy 500: an interview with the Iceman, Scott Dixon 

click to enlarge Photo by Dana Garrett
  • Photo by Dana Garrett

I don't have to live here, but Indy is a nice town. — Scott Dixon

Don't expect to see the handsome New Zealand native with the photogenic smile on Dancing with the Stars. Scott Dixon prefers to fly under the radar, ascribing his serious demeanor to shyness and discounting his focused appearance as merely the desire to drive. Flashy, he's not, but his dedication, attitude and skill behind the wheel make him the kind of driver team owners look for, crew members enjoy working with and competitors respect.

One of the most genuine – and most genuinely likable – drivers in the Izod IndyCar series, Dixon has racked up an impressive resume of championships, victories and other notable accomplishments -- all before reaching the age of 30. He's even featured on a New Zealand postage stamp.

Racing in his blood

The Australian-born son of two New Zealand dirt track racers, Dixon launched his career in karting. At the tender age of 13, he was granted special dispensation to race a saloon car. It was the first step on the path leading to a 2008 Indianapolis 500 win he could only dream of as a child, watching the race on TV from another hemisphere.

Fresh off a win on the Kansas oval that vaulted him into second place in the points race, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver takes stock of his career, while joking about plans to tie up Penske Racing driver Helio Castroneves to improve his chances of adding another Borg Warner trophy to his collection.

Confessing that he struggles with qualifying, the affable New Zealander considers consistency his best quality. Consistently at the top of his game, he has accumulated a string of accolades to match his trophy collection. At Nazareth, Pa., in 2001, in only his third race in the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, he became its youngest winner, snatching the honor from the late Greg Moore.

Impressive as he was in his debut, 2003 was his breakout year. After a move to the Indy Racing League with Ganassi, Dixon won the season opener at Homestead – only the third driver to win in his IndyCar series debut – and two additional races on his way to clinching the championship.

Five years later, he topped his personal best with another standout year. In 2008 Dixon tied the record for six wins in a season, including the Indianapolis 500, and won his second IndyCar Series championship.

Not bad for a driver who doesn't qualify well.

click to enlarge Scott Dixon and his wife, Emma, celebrate his victory last year. Photo by Dana Garrett
  • Scott Dixon and his wife, Emma, celebrate his victory last year. Photo by Dana Garrett

Long-term loyalty

Ever humble, Dixon is quick to point out that racing is a team sport. In his ninth year with one of the most successful teams in the business, he has set a benchmark as the driver with the longest tenure at Ganassi. But the association began unexpectedly in 2002 when the bankrupt PacWest Racing left him without a ride mid-season. Toyota intervened, convincing Ganassi to add a satellite team for the young driver. He's been there ever since.

Known for maintaining long-term relationships as much as he's known for his focus in a race car, Dixon shrugs off praise of loyalty with a simple, "I don't love confrontation."

Whether or not loyalty led to longevity at Ganassi, Dixon concedes he's had his "fair share of great teammates. I think I've had 9-10 teammates at Ganassi," he pauses to count. "Every driver brings something that stands out. With Dan Weldon, I had to pick up my game on ovals. Dario has given me a jab on the butt on road courses."

"I think Scott and Dario bring out the best in each other," muses team owner Chip Ganassi. "They are very similar drivers in that they are both, calm, cool and patient and are equally adept on road courses as they are on ovals."

Dixon is careful to clarify some differences between him and his teammates, categorizing himself as a relaxed driver. After practice sessions, "I spend about 10 minutes with engineers. I'm not fussy about changes to the car; I work around things. I feel for the guys working on the car."

Determination equals drive

Don't mistake his empathy for a lack of enthusiasm. Chip Ganassi almost made that error: "At first I didn't think (Dixon) was that excited about racing because he had won so early in IndyCar. People confuse that quietness with [not] caring about things. It's a relief to know that really wasn't what it is. It was a quiet confidence that sort of is his trademark. That's a powerful tool. Scott Dixon really is the Iceman. He's the driver you want."

Motivated by a competitive nature, the introverted driver likes a challenge. His favorite oval race track is the Milwaukee Mile because it's "physically tough and mentally demanding." He unflinchingly admits to holding an unofficial record there for destroying two cars in four laps, but counterbalanced that with a win.

Being signed with Ganassi hasn't completely shackled him from challenges in other forms of racing, although he gave up karting because "Chip didn't like it." He tested for the Williams Formula One team in 2004 and has driven in several sports car races, but not every option has been open. The Kiwi was slated to represent New Zealand in the A1 Grand Prix series in 2006, but couldn't get permission from Ganassi. "It's hard to race outside your contract. It depends on Chip's mood."

Motor racing isn't the only thing that fulfills him. He learned to fly in 2008 and during gaps in the racing season, Dixon sometimes competes in triathalons. Except for one half-Ironman, they're usually "just short ones: 20 miles of biking, 4-5 miles of running, Ã�'Æ'ââ'¬Å¡Ã�'â šÃ'½ mile of swimming. We train for those distances any way." At least six days a week, he trains with Pit Fit Training Inc., on a regimen that includes weights, bicycling, swimming and boxing. "I love it! I don't do it just because I have to."

Personally private

Some of the things he does have to do include personal appearances on behalf of his sponsor, media interviews and autograph sessions – not easy tasks for a shy man. Since his Indy 500 win, the spotlight has intensified. "My life changed. I'm recognized more."

Recognizing the importance of his off-track duties, Dixon judges his performance. "In the beginning, I was [bad] at it; it was hard to talk after a bad session, but the longer I've raced, the more I understand: without the fans, we're jobless."

Building relationships with reporters has helped him become more relaxed, he says. Turning the table on fans by listening to their stories and experiences makes him more comfortable. Most of all, he credits wife Emma with bringing him out of his shell.

Introduced by a friend in 2003, the couple reacquainted three years later when Dixon found himself in need of a tour guide while negotiating with Williams in London. They married in 2008 at Goodwood, the historic racing venue outside London.

Last year, daughter Poppy joined the family. "You don't get what it means until it happens," says the proud papa, who wants one or two more children. "It's life-changing." Ensconced in a waterfront home at Geist, he retains close ties to his parents (who now live in Indianapolis) and his team. "Having the guys here is huge; spending time with them is important.

"I don't have to live here," he continues, "but Indy is a nice town to live in." It's also got a "standout track" for a driver enamored with tracks that have tradition and style. "There's such a sense of history here. Going for the first time is a big shock: the people, the parade... Winning here is like nothing else because it's almost impossible to get everything right for 2-3 hours."

Getting everything right throughout any race is extremely difficult. When Dixon was penalized for jumping the start in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in April, he admits to unleashing a few expletives before channeling his anger to help him climb back through the field. "It fuels you during the race," he says, adding that he prefers to talk out "bad calls," and that he wasn't shy about presenting his side to Brian Barnhart, president, Competition and Operations, Indy Racing League.

Despite the occasional bad race, Dixon appears content with his career progress. Although he considers the current Indy car uninteresting, he's excited about designs for a new car. Treading carefully because Target is involved with the proposed Delta Wing design, ultimately, he says, "I don't care what we race, I just want to have fun."

He's equally enthusiastic about the decision to add road and street courses. "I love the mix in IndyCar. It makes a true champion. I did road/street courses growing up: I love them." But his love of road and street courses hasn't lured him away from IndyCar ... yet, although he believes sports cars are the future for most open wheel drivers.

Don't look for him as a team owner, either. Dixon intends to maintain the status quo for now. "Ganassi is a career team. I'll probably stay until I'm done with Indy Car. It's a great team; Chip is good about getting key people. I just want to win more races, more championships, Indy. Not too many people get to do what we get to do," he reflects, adding with gratitude, "I'm lucky to be in this situation."

SIDEBAR: Dixon career highlights

1995: New Zealand Formula Ford Class II championship

1996: New Zealand Formula Ford Class I championship

1997: Formula Holden Rookie of the Year

1998: Formula Holden championship for Formula 3000 cars

1999: Rookie of the Year Dayton Indy Lights series

2000: Dayton Indy Lights championship

2001: CART Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award

2003: IndyCar Series Championship

2006: won Rolex 24 at Daytona race in the Rolex Grand Am Sports Car Series with Dan Wheldon and Casey Mears as teammates

2008: Won 92nd Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series Championship; New Zealand Sportsman of the Year

click to enlarge Photo by Lori Lovely
  • Photo by Lori Lovely

Inside the garages at IMS

PQ: If the pits are the heart of the racetrack, the garages are its soul.

Competitive action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn't take place only on the track. Long hours of careful preparation occur behind the usually closed doors of the garages in Gasoline Alley, where drivers and engineers confer, where mechanics labor to perfect set-ups and polish bodywork. If the pits are the heart of the racetrack, the garages are its soul.

Half of the garage area had to be rebuilt after it burned down before the 1941 race, but it was a more radical restructuring in 1986 that changed the dynamic of Gasoline Alley. Replacing the cramped and dilapidated old green and white wooden garages in Gasoline Alley, several rows of low concrete buildings were constructed perpendicular to the old layout, sheltering team activity from the view of spectators outside the protective fence.

Many crew members considered the 96 individual garages cold caverns devoid of personality and practical convenience. Rules against drilling into the walls and floors or otherwise permanently altering the garages challenged teams to efficiently outfit their May digs for optimal productivity with a touch of comfort.

The unfair advantage

The late Mark Donohue, former Penske Racing driver, coined the term "the unfair advantage" in his 1975 book of the same title. Referring to the little details discovered and employed by the team that often provided a psychological as well as a practical edge over the competition, it encapsulated Roger Penske's thorough and polished approach to the business of racing.

That attention to detail hasn't changed for more than 30 years. Penske began installing amenities in his Indianapolis garages in 2003. Since 2006, capitalizing on a 28-year relationship with Snap-on Incorporated – now an associate sponsor – Penske Racing's bays in Gasoline Alley have been outfitted from floor to ceiling with the latest the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based tool manufacturer has to offer, according to Rick Secor, director of marketing communications for Snap-on. The concrete cave is transformed into an efficient work space. Not since Chip Ganassi carpeted his team's garage has there been as much buzz about Gasoline Alley garage dÃ�'Æ'Ã�� â ™Ã�'â šÃ'©cor.

"It gives us a psychological advantage over the other teams," confesses Jerry Breon, facilities manager for Penske Performance locations, quickly adding that the real value is in presenting a professional appearance for the sponsors they represent and to make the month better for a team busy with race preparations. "It covers up bare, spartan concrete and exposed conduit that isn't very attractive and it's more comfortable for mechanics to stand on. Anything we can do to make their day easier is good."

Step-by-step set-up

The layout makes life easier for the crew, but Breon faces a monumental task in designing and installing it. The specific design varies from year to year, evolving to match the team's needs. Once the team approves the design, the real work begins. Set-up takes seven days, which explains why the system is installed only for the Indianapolis 500. Because they aren't permitted to drill holes or leave any permanent evidence of alterations, Breon spends time developing methods to clamp and "use existing things to erect the walls."

Before anything is installed, however, electrical and data wiring and TV cable is routed to the offices and work stations. First, a crew of 18 (three from Penske and 15 from Snap-on) install the wiring, along with 3,750 sq. ft. of two-tone interlocking gray Ergodeck anti-fatigue floor matting from Wearwell that conceal it, the work benches and 600 sq. ft. of black carpeting in the office and conference areas. Made of PVC, the tiles provide long-term worker comfort and can withstand heavy traffic.

Framework to support the wall panel system is installed next. "It takes a full day to install," Breon says. The wall units are part of an organization system from storeWALL, incorporating their patented thermoplastic heavy-duty panels. Waterproof, mold- and mildew-resistant and available in five colors or woodgrain, the panels are rugged replacements for wood or MDF slatwall panels. Breon chose white, which significantly increases the lighting level in the sometimes dreary garages. Adjustable CamLok-equipped accessories, such as hooks and shelving, keep tools out of the way but close at hand and support tool boxes.

Panels are hung and overhead cabinets and workbenches are moved in the next day. The Build-a-Bay stationary storage systems, available through Snap-on, consist of wall-mounted tool boxes, work benches and storage units. The customizable system is designed for flexibility to help mechanics be more organized and efficient. Simultaneously, three additional people installed the modular office furniture.

Finally, Breon and another Penske employee finish up with final details, including signage, data cabling, televisions and cleanup. "We put foam core sliding doors above the valance to conceal storage shelves," he adds. "Valance signage helps hide that. It's just another detail, part of the presentation."

That presentation is important for sponsors and guests invited to the garage, notes Jonathan Gibson, public relations director for Penske Racing, as well as for fans touring the garage area. Tom Ward, president of the Snap-on Tools Group, says they receive enthusiastic feedback from customers and franchisees regarding the association.

Post-race clean-up

After the race, teardown is much quicker than set-up, Breon says with a smile. "We do the bulk of it right after the race, removing the team-owned belongings. The rest is taken out on Tuesday."

Gibson believes all the effort is worth it, noting that it "provides a good work space for the month." Breon, who's been with the team since 1974, says he gets little feedback from the crew, but adds "no news is good news, I suppose."

The race prognostications

Odds favor a car belonging to Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi making its way to Victory Circle at the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30. However, a 500-mile race often concocts a few surprises along the way.

Top 5:

  • Scott Dixon – former winner who carries momentum from a win in Kansas, performs well on ovals and quietly deals with the car and strategy he's been dealt.
  • Will Power – has been the Penske driver to beat this year, scoring the season's first two wins.
  • Dario Franchitti – former winner nipping at the heels of his teammate this season, but always a threat.
  • Ryan Briscoe – in classic Penske style, Briscoe turns in solid performances and is always in contention.
  • Helio Castroneves – the four-time winners club is exclusive for a reason. It's even harder to score back-to-back wins, but the fence-climbing Brazilian is the comeback kid.

Near-misses:

  • Paul Tracy – determined to show everyone what they've been missing, he may sabotage himself with too much aggression, unless race strategist Barry Green reels him in.
  • Tony Kanaan – always a strong contender, but as team leader, he has inherited the Andretti curse.
  • Danica Patrick – strong oval performances, but is she too busy rehearsing for NASCAR to be focused?
  • Alex Tagliani – has posted some strong results in his debut season as a team co-owner. If he can keep his famous temper in hand, he could end up in the Top 5.

Long shots:

  • John Andretti –experienced veteran who demonstrated at Kansas that he still has the chops as well as the desire.
  • Mike Conway – surprising performances this year and a stronger Dreyer & Reinbold team have put this Brit consistently at the front.
  • Vitor Meira – impressive at Sao Paolo and always strong at IMS, but his team will let him down if somebody doesn't take him out first.
  • Davey Hamilton – no seat time in the Dragon wagon, but a history of laps logged here combined with patience could secure a good finish.
  • E.J. Viso – the team is spread too thin and he lacks the experience.
  • Justin Wilson –this talented driver should be doing a lot better with Dreyer & Reinbold.
  • Sarah Fisher – if she could find more speed in the car, she could get a Top-10 finish.
  • Takuma Sato – surprised everyone with a strong performance on his first oval in Kansas.

Doubt it:

  • Dan Weldon – for some reason, he and the Panther team haven't been getting it done.
  • Tomas Scheckter – fast but likes the wall too much.
  • Marco Andretti – lacks the maturity to pull off a win here.
  • Hideki Mutoh – is struggling with the once-great Newman/Haas team.
  • Simona de Silvestro – a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year, but not for Victory Circle Graham Rahal – last-minute deals with defunct teams rarely result in a win.
  • Ed Carpenter – see Graham Rahal.
  • Raphael Matos – instead of passing on track, he relies on pit stops for positions.

Comments

Readers also liked…

Around the Web

This Week's Flyers

Today's Best Bets | All of today's events

Around the Web

All contents copyright © 2016 NUVO Inc.
3951 N. Meridian St., Suite 200, Indianapolis, IN 46208
Website powered by Foundation