Born Racer

With his fifth IndyCar title secured, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon has now surpassed the on-track exploits of Michael Andretti to sit third on the all-time IndyCar winner’s list. A genius behind the wheel, Dixon is humble in his successes.

Feb 28, 2018

This isn’t just a living.

This is everything he has ever wanted to do.

Every weekend in Northern California, thousands of wine-lovers make the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, to savour the famous reds from the vineyards dotted along the Ruta Estatal de California.  This is wine country. But for Scott Dixon, it is also winning country. This is where he further confirmed his status as an IndyCar great. 

With the precision and calmness of an experienced surgeon, Dixon claimed his fifth IndyCar title in mid-September with a perfectly measured second place – in itself as unspectacular as he is spectacular.  

The New Zealander did exactly what he needed to do to win the title. Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed the season finale – but Dixon was the big winner. As always there was no histrionics; only credit to wife Emma, his team and main rival for the title, Alexander Rossi. 

Even as Rossi closed the gap over the last few races of the season, Dixon had remained unflustered. Speaking to him ahead of the final three races, he still felt that history was on his side. 

“It’ll be a tight finish but based on last year’s performance it should be in our favour. You don’t over-analyse at this end of the season or focus on just one or two rivals. We went into the last three races chasing wins, it was as simple as that.” 

2017, or ‘that’ season, is the basis for the movie Born Racer. It presented the filmmakers with a plot that was wild enough to be classed as fiction. It included him winning pole position for the Indy 500, only to experience the biggest crash of his career, being held up at gunpoint and still coming within one race of winning the championship. 

Where do you start? Indianapolis seems the logical place. It’s the biggest week of the year for IndyCar (not to mention the biggest annual sporting event on earth with over 350,000 attending the Indy500). With double points on offer there is more at stake than just a bottle of milk and getting your face on the Borg-Warner trophy.  

Dixon had just made the perfect start to the week, having claimed pole for the 500, so he and four-time IndyCar Champ Dario Franchitti decided to make a food run to Taco Bell for the team. Before they’d left the drive-thru lane, they were held up at gunpoint by two teenaged boys. Both Dixon and Franchitti initially refused to give up their wallets. 

“It was only afterwards that I realised that was a much bigger deal when you think about how bad it could go when you’re not easily giving up your cell phone or wallet. It’s just dumb shit when you should be saying ‘Here just take this’,” he says. 

A year on, Dixon can also see the lighter side of the incident; like Franchitti claiming to not have a wallet, while the wallet Dixon eventually handed over…was his wife, Emma’s (he’d misplaced his).  

Still, keeping calm under pressure is why Dixon earned the nickname ‘The Iceman’. 

A week later that famously calm demeanour was seen again when he walked away from an horrific lap-45 crash after a lapped driver slipped up in front of him. The 350km/h crash destroyed his car, with Dixon describing it straight after as a “wild ride”. 

Looking back Dixon admits he was lucky, although when the car came to a rest on the inside wall, all he was thinking was, “This is double points race, and we just took a hammering because we came last.” 

At the time Emma was less worried about the points, telling reporters shortly after the smash, “I really didn’t think he was coming home. That is the worst thing I have ever seen.” 

It was a harsh reminder for Dixon of the other side of IndyCar; the side drivers hate, and hate talking about. 

“The crashes are never easy to deal with. It’s part of the sport, it’s the worst part of the sport – we all know that. It is much safer now, but it can all change pretty quickly. The hard part is that a lot of these people are your friends. It’s the families, the kids and the parents. Take Dan (Wheldon), Tony (Renna), Justin (Wilson)… these people are doing what they love. It’s what made them feel alive.”  

This season has seen Dixon regularly in the limelight; whether as Championship frontrunner or after passing Michael Andretti to sit third on the all-time winner's list. 

“When you look at the win list it feels strange: (AJ) Foyt, (Mario) Andretti, Dixon. For me, I just look at it as we’re in the business of winning races, and if you’re not, then you’re not going to be around for too much longer.” 

The renewal of his contract with Chip Ganassi became public knowledge, with media speculation of him having “moderate talks” with other teams. The level of excitement was bemusing for Dixon. 

“It was no different to what we do every two or three years. It was just that it became public knowledge. The process was normal; we talk to all the teams, find out what is going on, what opportunities they have,” he says. 

Ganassi and Dixon are one of motorsports great success stories. In many ways they are an odd couple, but the bombastic team boss and reserved driver have been a partnership that has earned a place in IndyCar history. Even if Ganassi was perplexed that Dixon bucked the trend by not slowing down following the birth of his two daughter Poppy and Tilly, Dixon as always has a logical explanation; “More mouths to feed means I have to win more races.” 

In truth, it’s more than that. Family life offers a perspective Dixon never knew early on in his career. 

“It’s been a really good way of separating things. When you’re young, it can get quite obsessive, which can be a bad thing. Now when you come home after a bad race, they want to talk about something completely different. So that’s been really good to separate racing from being Dad.”  

Whether it is the breath-taking speed, the close competition or the ever-present reminder of the danger, Dixon refuses to think or act like he’s ‘clocked the game.’ Despite knowing every trick to finding that last hundredth of a second in qualifying, or his instinctive ability to stretch fuel further than anyone else, complacency is non-existent. 

“I’ve never been involved in a championship that has been easy or without adversity, so we just put out heads down and go for it.” 

It’s not just Dixon’s head that is in the right place, but also his heart. This became crystal clear when I ask if, at 38, he’d started to consider retiring from what even he concedes can be a dangerous workplace? 

“No. It would feel worse giving up something you love and still having to watch it. I’ve always said when it’s your time, it’s your time. You could fall off a ladder, get hit by a bus. I love what I do, and what it has done for my family and me. 

“I love the competitiveness, the feeling of beating someone, that’s what drives me. There’s nothing worse than waking up on a Monday having had a shitty day on the Sunday.” 

That best of all explains why and how Dixon has thrived for 18-seasons in the top flight of American open-wheel racing; a place where he has remained at the pointy end for his entire career.  

Even ‘career’ seems like an understatement because motorsport is his vocation. He doesn’t race for a living, he is a racer; a born racer. 

Words Shaun Summerfield 

Photos Supplied and Jen Raoult @ ClairObscur