Hello everyone, your trusty pal Nick is here to take things back to the race track. Our usual listeners probably know by now that I’m the MOST hardcore race fan of the 3 on our panel, and since we like to keep a balance on the podcast between road and track, I can use these blogs to discuss my favorite sport ad nauseam. Deal with it. I’d like you to take a minute to look up the all-time Indy Car career wins list. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I can’t wait any longer. Here’s a look at the very sharp end of that list:
A.J. Foyt – 67 wins (7 championships)
Mario Andretti – 52 wins (4 championships)
Michael Andretti – 42 wins (1 championship)
Scott Dixon – 41 wins (4 championships)
Pretty straightforward, right? All household names, all tried and true hall-of-famers, all legends in their own…wait a second, who’s this “Dixon” guy? That’s a typo, isn’t it?
I’m afraid not. The New Zealander has stealthily maneuvered his way to the upper echelon of his sport, and either no one knows or no one cares. I don’t blame the lack of fanfare on anybody. Dixon isn’t one to put himself out there much. His calm, quiet, business-like demeanor has earned him the “Iceman” nickname from his peers. You don’t see him on TV commercials, he doesn’t lend his name to products, he doesn’t Dance With The Stars and he was never a Celebrity Apprentice. He has never cared or longed for any spotlight. The quiet Kiwi is, simply put, the best racing driver you’ve NEVER heard of. And I’m about to show you why. Be warned, my day job is a data analyst. Numbers are coming.
I first was made aware of one Mr. Scott Dixon when I was but a wee lad back in the year 2000. My family used to visit the Milwaukee Mile when the Indy Car Series came to town, but my grandfather and I would go earlier than the rest of our group to catch the Indy Lights race. If you’re not familiar with Indy Lights, think a racing version of Triple-A baseball. If you perform well in the development league, you are bound to get a call up to the majors before long. This particular Lights race was about to start and the P.A. announcer mentioned that polesitter Scott Dixon was only 18 years old. Now, at the time, as a 13 year old, I thought it was WAY COOL that a teenager (just like me!) was out there racing against the “big guys.” As I grew up I learned that Indy Lights, as a developmental series, has a LOT of teenagers in it but this was the first I remember hearing about it. I decided I was going to pay particular attention to Dixon that day. Thank God I did. From pole position, he proceeded to lead every lap to win, and in doing so put THE ENTIRE FIELD a lap down. From then on, Scott Dixon was my guy. I’ve followed his career ever since that day and what an awesome ride it’s been, complete with 4 championships, a 2008 Indianapolis 500 victory and countless other cool moments.
So let’s take some time to break down what makes a driver truly “great.” Yes, the numbers mentioned above don’t lie, and we will be digging into those further. But why don’t we take a look at some key attributes that I feel all great champions have? The first, of course, is speed: Pure, raw, unadulterated speed. Dixon has that for sure. In an interview a few years back, star Indy Car driver Tony Kanaan said “You could put Dixon out there with 3 tires while the rest of us keep all 4, and he’d still beat half of us. He’s that good.” Not a bad vote of confidence coming from a former Indy 500 winner and series champ, but I know one quote isn’t going to prove anything. So consider this: Scott first came to the U.S. in 1999 to test an Indy Lights car at Sebring International Raceway, the crotchety old former-airbase-turned-racetrack in central Florida that we talked about in episode 4 of the podcast. In a car he’d never driven before, at a track he’d never seen, he set the track record on his 8th lap. Let me repeat that: HIS EIGHTH LAP. Raw talent much? Once Dixon got promoted to IndyCar, he proved his natural speed again by setting a record that will never be broken: the IndyCar record for consecutive laps led (read, “how long it takes before someone else catches you”). In the 2003 season, he led the last 84 laps at the now defunct Pikes Peak Raceway, he led EVERY LAP from pole the next round at Richmond, and the first 53 laps the following week at Kansas Speedway. By the time he finally got passed on the 54th go-round at Kansas, he had led 343 consecutive laps! Pay attention to this next statement: that record will NEVER be touched. Period. The odds are just too steep to make that happen, especially with the increased level of competition in Indy Car track today, and how much tighter the field is week-to-week. Often times, the top 15 cars are only separated by .5 of a second, so a single tiny mistake could lose someone multiple positions. Nowadays, a driver is lucky if they lead 60 in a row.
Ok, so the Scott Dixon is fast. But you can’t just be a flash-in-the-pan who has one good year. Great drivers need to display consistency. You can go ahead and check that box, too. Let’s deep dive the list of drivers up above. A.J. Foyt’s 67 wins came from 369 starts, or an 18% win rate. Mario Andretti is 52 of 421 (12%), Michael Andretti is 42 of 317 (13%). At the end of 2017, Dixon had made 287 Indy Car starts. His 41 wins to-date make for a 14% hit rate, 2nd only to A.J. Foyt. His podium percentage (33%, or 96 of 287) is also 2nd all-time behind the Mario Andretti. In case you don’t know, a podium is a finish of 3rd or better in a race. Mario stood on the box 143 times in his career, 34% of his races. 2018 will mark Dixon’s 18th season in Indy Car. In 12 of the previous 17, he has finished 4th or better in the overall season championship. That stretch includes 9 years IN A ROW finishing at least 3rd. Find someone who can match that. I dare you.
Right, so we’ve got speed and consistency, is there anything else a great champion driver needs do show? You bet! Someone who crashes as much as he or she wins may be exciting, but that’s not great in terms of legacy. A driver needs what they call “race craft.” This is a loosely defined term, but the best way to describe it is being just as smart as you are fast. Knowing when to push to the limit and when to conserve fuel/tires/equipment, working with your team to “out-strategize” the competition, thinks like that. And believe me, ol’ Scotty is as crafty as they come! Too many times I’ve watched a race where someone else was running away with the lead all race long, but Dixon waits in the weeds until the time is right and then suddenly, he pounces. With a couple lighting quick laps and a good strategy play, he takes the checkered flag and leaves with the trophy before anyone can say “Hey, where did Dixon come from?!” Where he really excels is saving fuel: He is probably the best ever. Why is this important? Of course, fuel and tire changes in a race are not just luck or chance, they are planned by the team and the driver. So therefore, it’s a skill, a craft that can be honed. Some detail: If a driver can manage to ease up a bit earlier in the race while still maintaining a good pace, he or she can push the final pit stop until later on in the contest. A later pit stop means less fuel needed to fill the tank, which means less time on pit road. A later final pit stop also means that your new set of tires doesn’t need to last as long, so you can push them harder to the finish. In the extreme case, a driver may be able to gain positions or even a lead late in the race as the rest of the field pits for fuel. If a driver is VERY good at this race craft, a team may decide to gamble and skip the last pit stop completely making for an instant 30 second advantage over their rivals. This craft requires ultimate focus and discipline to maintain a certain pace despite what’s going on around you. Scott and his team use this tactic almost more often than raw speed, much to the chagrin of the competition. No joke: I once saw him draw out a 20+ second lead and STILL pit 4 laps later than everyone else! People have often complained to race officials that Dixon’s team MUST be cheating, carrying more fuel than the rest of the field. But every inspection yields no foul play. However, if we were to check, we just may find an actual oil refinery in the man’s right foot.
You don’t need to bother mentioning it, I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, Nick, that’s all well and good. But the TRUE legends are versatile! They can drive any car, anytime, anywhere!” You are correct. And in today’s age of specialization it is getting rare to find a true all ‘rounder. But let’s not forget that Indy Car is the most versatile race series in the world. They race on tight, bullring short ovals like Phoenix and Iowa, concrete-jungle style street circuits like Long Beach and Toronto, 200mph+ mega ovals like Texas and Indianapolis, and sweeping natural-terrain road courses like Barber Motorsports Park or Road America. To win a championship in Indy Car, one needs to be competitive in all 4 disciplines. Scott Dixon is not only competitive at all 4 styles of track, he’s won at all 4 styles of track in his illustrious career. Also worth noting is that he’s won races in 4 chassis/body combinations and under 3 different engine regulations, from normally-aspirated V8s to twin-turbo V6s. But for those who still aren’t convinced, he does venture outside of the open wheel realm from time to time. Every now and again he races with a roof over his head in IMSA or WEC, particularly in the long endurance races that require more than 2 drivers per car. How has he done? Well, how does 3 class (2 overall) wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona sound? Not bad! He’s also won the pole position at the 12 Hours of Sebring and earned a class podium at the world’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in a Ford GT. He has achieved great success in quite literally every car he has sat in over the past 20 years.
Look, I can’t tell anyone who to root for. This is a free country. You can make your own decision. But if you’re a young aspiring racer looking for someone to root for, or your son or daughter is a young speed demon who needs a role model, Scott Dixon is a pure badass that gives a race fan anything they are looking for on track, and he is also a tremendous ambassador of the sport off track. Just because he’s quiet and reserved doesn’t mean he is unapproachable. I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with him a few times over the years and he just so happens to be a humble, easygoing and friendly guy. He’s accommodating to the fans, great with the media and a professional representative of his sponsors. I’m not saying to burn all the memorabilia from your favorite race driver to make room for your new Scott Dixon t-shirt and can koozies. What I DO ask is, at the very least, you tune into an Indy Car race to witness his greatness while you still have a chance. Scott will turn 38 this year, and while he still has a few competitive years left in him, he is definitely closer to the end of his career than the beginning. I for one am excited to see just how far up that all-time wins list he can get before he hangs his helmet up for good: he has Michael Andretti zeroed in the crosshairs and Mario is visible on the horizon. Catching A.J. may be a stretch, but 53 career wins is still very much attainable. Now that you know this often-overlooked racing folk hero, try to at least appreciate the man and his accomplishments. Or don’t. The “Iceman” won’t care either way. He’s too busy winning.