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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Scott Dixon keeps getting better

by Gordon Kirby
Last year, Scott Dixon lost the IRL championship to Dario Franchitti when his car ran out of fuel on the last lap of the Chicagoland season finale. This year, there were no such last-minute blunders as Dixon drove a smart race and was able to go to the front in the closing laps, dueling confidently with championship rival Helio Castroneves. It was a great finish to the IndyCar season but as exciting as Castroneves and Team Penske made it, there's no doubt that the right man won the championship.

Dixon was the man to beat all year and has added a sixth championship to Ganassi's IndyCar collection. Dixon won six races, led an IRL record 899 of 2,840 laps and led the championship all summer after winning the 92nd Indianapolis 500 at the end of May. And with Dario Franchitti returning to Indy cars as Dixon's new teammate, Ganassi will enjoy having the two most recent Indy 500 winners and IRL champions paired together in his team as it celebrates its twentieth anniversary with primary sponsor Target.

NASCAR aside, this has been a tremendous year for Ganassi. Chip's Indianapolis-based IRL and Grand-Am teams have won fourteen races this year, adding to Ganassi's current tally of 103 wins since he started his one-car Indy car team back in 1990 with Eddie Cheever driving. Since then Ganassi's IndyCar team has won 64 races and six championships and his Grand-Am team is on the brink of a third title, including three Rolex 24 hour wins at Daytona. Ganassi's Charlotte-based NASCAR team has also contributed to his overall record with twelve individual race wins.

This was Dixon's tenth year racing in the United States. He arrived from New Zealand in 1999 when he was just eighteen and raced Indy Lights for two years, starting with manager-to-be Stefan Johansson's team. Dixon joined PacWest in 2000 and won the Indy Lights championship before moving up to CART with the team in 2001. Dixon scored his first and only CART win at Nazareth in '01 and continued with PacWest until the team went out of business in the spring of '02. He jumped to Ganassi's team and drove his first race for Chip at Milwaukee in '02, then moved with Ganassi to the IRL in 2003.

Back then, the IRL ran only on ovals and Dixon and Ganassi's team won the '03 championship in their first crack at the IRL series. He places much greater stock in winning this year's championship because the IRL now enjoys a reasonable number of road and street circuits with more to come and also because of the increased competition this season with the arrival of the remaining Champ Car teams. Scott reflected on his climb up the American open-wheel ladder and the many lessons he's learned about oval racing.

"Ovals are a funny thing," Dixon grinned. "When I first came into Indy Lights I had some good races on ovals. My first Indy Lights race was at Homestead and I finished third and my first win was on a one-mile oval at Chicago. We've definitely had some rocky roads and definitely in my first season of Indy Lights we had some tough races. Street courses were probably my worst at that point.

"But once I went to PacWest it was like night and day. Our oval package was fantastic and that's when I started enjoying ovals a lot more. The transition then to Champ Car with PacWest and their oval program with the Champ car was terrible, so I didn't like ovals!

"I struggled on the ovals and I thought maybe it was the size of the car, but when PacWest went out of business and I started with Chip the ovals were a lot easier. I think Milwaukee was my first race and I qualified third or fourth, straight out of the box, and we were running second until I screwed-up a pitstop.

"That season was difficult, just trying to catch-up I think. I never really got settled in the team, but that blew by quite quick and the next decision was Ganassi is going to the IRL and it's all ovals. It's hard to turn down anything with a team like Ganassi so I said, 'Sure, no problem.' But in the back of my head I didn't really want to do a season of all ovals, but that quickly changed after the first race.

"So it's kind of a funny deal," Scott added. "In '04 and '05, the ovals were a right pain in the ass because we were just terrible. It's definitely a lot to do with confidence and what you have beneath you that you can use.

"For me, '03 was definitely a year where I started to come to grips with the ovals. Our strength then was short ovals, tracks where you were just flat-out. But I was terrible on mile-and-a-half tracks and I couldn't figure that out."

Dixon freely admits that he learned a lot from Dan Wheldon when Wheldon joined Ganassi from Andretti-Green in 2006.

"My next big year was '06 when Dan came into the team. I learned a lot from him and it showed you can definitely learn a lot more. I think this season between Dan and myself we've won on all the mile-and-a-half tracks.

"Dan definitely brought a different style of racing and a way to set a car up for a mile-and-a-half that he brought from Andretti-Green, and that was a clear definition of me learning. You could definitely feel from the start of '06 through the end of '06 we started to figure it out, and we carried on from there."

Dixon is doubly happy to have done so well this year following the unification of the IRL and Champ Car and the arrival of the 'transition' teams from Champ Car.

"The competition level has gone through the roof this year," Scott observes. "So any little mistake and you're nowhere."

Four years ago, after winning the '03 IRL title, Dixon tested a Williams-BMW F1 car at Paul Ricard and Barcelona.

"Looking at it now," he reflects, "I wish I had done it totally different. It was tough because I was coming from a series that was all ovals at that time. I hadn't been on a road course for quite some time.

"The first test went extremely well but it was definitely physically much more demanding than I ever thought it would've ever been. If I could do the test today, I would be a hell of a lot better off.

"The biggest thing for me was the tires, and that again would not be a problem now. I had enough sets of tires for my first test at Paul Ricard and towards the end of that test I had it somewhat figured-out for that track. I think we ended up fourth out of twelve cars and I was only a couple of tenths off Ralf Schumacher.

"But then at Barcelona, the circuit itself was very tough. The first day we just did long runs and the second day it rained so we ran in the rain. The third day we did some long runs and then started on our qualifying simulations, which is the time that counts, and the car broke its rear suspension. So I didn't get out until six o'clock at night.

"The biggest thing I learned was that on your out-lap you needed to go slow because the tires were only good for maybe half a lap. Honestly, you could brake and go through the corner twenty-four moves quicker. It was bizarre and for a guy who had no knowledge or confidence in that, I was out to lunch. It was amazing to see the difference. Those tires are not like that anymore. They're very consistent. You might have five laps to get it together."

Dixon also learned during those two F1 tests with Williams how hard-nosed the Europeans are about racing.

"Going into the Barcelona test they'd already signed (Mark) Webber," Scott remarked. "I don't even know why we ended up doing the second test.

"The whole concept over there is very hard to break into because they don't give you the time of day. You've got two days to sort your shit out and if you can't, then that's it. And if you don't know the circuits--there's a long list of excuses I could pull out--but it's the reality of what you've got to deal with. I was talking to Marco about it before he tested for Honda last year and I said, 'Be careful man, because they can write you off pretty quick.'.

"The F1 car is a fantastic car to drive," Scott added. "Honestly, it's the best car by a ton I've ever driven. I definitely admire the guys who have done it and been there and been through the process and really made it, even in the smaller European formula."

Like most drivers, Dixon would like to see more power from the IRL's new formula for 2011.

"I think they need to get back to more power and maybe a little less grip," he comments. "I think that creates better racing. For me, more power and less grip. But it's kinda weird because at some circuits the car is very good. Look at Milwaukee for example. The car worked really there, but then Richmod was terrible. Iowa was better this year, but some of the racetracks have been just horrible.

"The biggest thing for me is they need to create options for the teams. They've narrowed themselves into a bit of a corner at the moment by making the cars so even that there's no differentiation. When you get stuck behind somebody who's maybe a couple of tenths slower, you can't pass because the cars are so close.

"Obviously, the push-to-pass would be one of the options with a turbo engine that could create some passing options. The way it is now on ovals, you're just stuck because this is what you have to run. If you roll out of the box and your car is quick, you're going to have a good weekend. If you don't run quick off the truck, you're going to struggle. So there are some areas they need to look at. They've probably tried to make the cars so even because maybe they can't keep up with the teams trying to advance."

It's interesting that Dixon's most enjoyable race this year was Milwaukee where he finished second to Ryan Briscoe after winning the previous weekend's Indy 500.

"As far as ovals go, the race I had the most fun was Milwaukee. We came second but the car was bloody good. Without Briscoe, it would have been a perfect weekend. That was probably the most fun I've had because it's a small circuit, but if you've got a good car you can race and you can race really well.

"And then the Indy 500. It was a fun month. The hardest part for us as a team was we had such a perfect month and you were just waiting for something to go wrong and then all that was left was the race. To have a perfect month at the Speedway, I don't think many people have that."

With Franchitti joining Dixon next year there's every reason to believe Ganassi's team will be even more competitive. Franchitti is a very good test driver--his ability was sorely missed at Andretti-Green this year--and the Scotsman may well push Dixon to new insights and greater heights of performance.

In this space on Thursday, Ganassi's IRL/Grand-Am general manager Mike Hull will provide his analysis of how Dixon and the team won this year's championship and why their level of success should continue into the future.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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