Scott Dixon was the man to beat in Indycars this year. Dixon won six races, led an IRL record 899 laps, and was on top of the championship all summer after winning the 92nd Indianapolis 500 at the end of May. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Dixon is renowned as the IRL IndyCar Series’ ‘iceman’. He speaks softly with a shy grin and shuns the limelight. Scott is the opposite of his outgoing 2008 title rival Hélio Castroneves, who has achieved TV stardom over the last two years on Dancing with the Stars and always likes a little drama.
In fact, Penske team leader Castroneves took the title battle down to the closing laps of the year’s final race where he and Dixon duelled side by side to the flag. While Castroneves was the only man to seriously challenge Dixon for the championship, most of the year the Miami-domiciled Brazilian wasn’t able to find Victory Lane. He finished second eight times, twice running out of fuel just before the finish, before finally winning at Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) in August. Hélio also won the season-closing race on the Chicagoland oval in Joliet, Illinois, beating Dixon across the line in a photo finish by 0.0033sec, the second-closest finish in IRL history. Team Penske and Castroneves did all they could, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Dixon is especially proud of this year’s championship because when he last won the IRL title in his first full year with Ganassi in 2003 the series raced only on ovals. “That’s what’s so good about this series,” he says. “In Champ Car and now IRL you have to be good in many different disciplines as opposed to just ovals, or just street circuits, or just road courses. It took me a while to get to grips with all three disciplines but once you do, it’s a lot of fun and a great achievement. When you win this championship today, you’ve shown you can drive and race on all types of tracks.”
Another reason Dixon is proud of winning this year’s championship is because the depth of the field was much stronger than in recent years thanks to the unification of the IRL and Champ Car, and thus the arrival of former Champ Car teams. “The competition level has gone through the roof, so any little mistake and you’re nowhere,” he says.
Aside from his title-winning duel with Castroneves in the season finale, Dixon’s most enjoyable race was Milwaukee, where he finished second to Ryan Briscoe a week after winning the Indy 500. “As far as ovals go, the race where I had the most fun was Milwaukee,” Dixon says. “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.”
Dixon set himself on the path to winning this year’s IRL by dominating the month of May. “The Indy 500 was a fun month,” he says. “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.”
He’s also proud of his win at the fast Edmonton airport circuit in July, where he soundly beat Castroneves and Justin Wilson. “My best road course or street course was Edmonton, I think. It was a great team effort because at the start of that weekend we were struggling big time, and by the time we got to the race we had the speed. To begin with we were maybe 10th at best, and we slowly brought it back. By qualifying we were fourth and we could run as quick, or quicker, than Hélio in the race.”
Dixon admits it took him a few years to find the key to going fast on all types of tracks. “There are definitely drivers who have been quick from the get-go on every type of course, but I wasn’t there,” he admits. “I did well in some areas but in others I really struggled. It took me a while and a few team-mates to get the gist of it, to see where I was struggling and what they did different, and then try to emulate that.
“The biggest learning part, especially on the ovals, is good feedback. I struggled with that to start with because all I wanted to do was just go quicker. For me, 2003 was definitely a year where I started to get 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 says he learned a lot from Dan Wheldon about how to set up a car for the medium-speed, banked ovals. “My next big year was ’06 when Dan came into the team. I learned a lot from him. This season, between Dan and myself, we’ve won on almost all the mile-and-a-half tracks.
“Dan definitely had a different style of racing and a way to set a car up for the mile-and-a-half tracks that he brought from Andretti-Green, and that was a clear definition of me learning. You could definitely tell from the start of ’06 through the end of the year that we had started to figure it out, and we carried on from there.”
Dixon admits he’s not yet the best driver on some of the more technically demanding road courses. “There are still some things we’re struggling with in my driving style,” he says. “Some tracks, like Mid-Ohio and Sonoma where front grip is so important, I’m always getting lots of understeer, which I don’t like. There’s still stuff I need to learn there. With the harder tyre at Watkins Glen or Detroit, I don’t seem to have a problem. So I still have to figure that one out.”
At 28, Dixon will go into his seventh year with Chip Ganassi’s team next season and has no plans for the foreseeable future to do anything different: “I’ve always said I would be an idiot to leave this team. They’ve got something really good going here. It’s a real team. There are no egos and everyone works together. You couldn’t ask for more.”