Milk run: Scott Dixon and the Indianapolis 500

17:19, May 24 2014
Scott Dixon
DRIVEN: Scott Dixon's face is the picture of concentration as he prepares to get some practice in the Indianapolis circuit.

Tomorrow Kiwi Indycar driver Scott Dixon will attempt to win the biggest race in United States, the Indy 500. The Sunday Star Times caught up with him for a chat. 

Scott Dixon will wake up in the master bedroom of his house in Carmel, one of Indianapolis' northern-most suburbs, and stride to the family breakfast table.

Waiting for him there will be a big pile of English pancakes; made especially for him by his wife Emma.

It's his race-day tradition, and tomorrow is race day: the biggest of the year.

The Indy 500. The Five Hundred. The Brickyard's Big Dance. The Biggest Race in American Motorsport.

There will be big helpings of eggs and fresh fruit either side of the pancakes - it'll be a big feed.


Emma makes sure there's plenty there. She knows that her husband will be too hyped up to eat, apart from a quick snack later in the day.

The two will try to talk about anything but racing. About their daughters, Poppy and Tilly. About the post-race party that Emma is organising for the drivers and their friends in downtown Indy.

Dixon will try not to think about the race itself. About the 400,000-strong crowd. About the tradition, and history of it all. About how crucial the start is.

About the chequered flag at the finish line. About how much he wants to drink that famed bottle of milk.

He'll try not to think about that stuff - but it probably won't work.

Two weeks ago, Dixon sat in the trailer of his Target Chip Ganassi Racing trailer at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). The 500 is not yet on his mind.

The clock is ticking for Dixon today - it's just two hours until the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis gets under way at the IMS.

An oval-track purist, Dixon prefers to see the IMS in Indy 500 mode rather than the track course he will drive today.

No matter - a race is a race - and vital points are available if he wants to defend his IndyCar title this year.

Today does not prove to be a good one. Dixon finishes 15th overall after being nudged into a gravel pit by Will Power in the early laps.

But all that lies ahead of Dixon on this hot Indiana afternoon.

Right now, it's the subject of living in America - and the vast cultural difference between here and his homeland - that he's addressing.

"America is made for the consumer, man," the 33-year-old tells the Sunday Star-Times.

"You drive everywhere. The cars are cheap, and they are nice. You buy a massive frickin' house here for a million dollars, whereas in Auckland, it would be four or five million dollars.

"So, it's built for the consumer and it's easy to live here. Over time, you get more used to the cultural differences.

"But I think America is evolving too. You go to coastal areas - New York or LA - it's very similar to any big city.

"But where we live in the Midwest, it's not backward - but just different."

Dixon is more aware of the cultural differences than most - he's been here in the States since he made the move to Indianapolis as a slightly pudgy 19-year-old kid from the Auckland suburb of Manurewa.

What he has achieved in motor racing since has elevated him into the company of the great Kiwi race-car drivers, alongside F1 legends Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon.

Since making his debut in the IndyCar series in 2003, Dixon, the 2013 Halberg Sportsman of the Year, has claimed three championship titles.

In 184 races, the super-consistent Dixon has claimed a remarkable 108 poles, 32 victories and 155 total top-ten finishes.

Those figures place Dixon alongside Sam Hornish Jr and Dario Franchitti as the most dominant IndyCar drivers since the turn of the century.

Former Kiwi IndyCar driver Wade Cunningham, who still lives in Indianapolis, believes that when Dixon finally retires, he will be recognised as the one of the best drivers ever.

"He's literally going to end his career as one of the top five IndyCar drivers of all-time," Cunningham says.

"He could be up there with 40-something wins with someone like Michael Andretti one day - if he wants."

On the track, Dixon is renowned for his ice-cold driving persona. Nothing rattles him. He knows where he is heading, and what he needs to do.

He's a physical specimen these days, too - a bloke who treats his body like every true athlete should, thanks to advice from Emma, a former Commonwealth Games track runner for Wales.

Off the course, he retains that focus - but with a little more of that cheeky 'Rewa Hard' style thrown in these days.

He can play the all-important sponsorship game superbly, while his relationship with Chip Ganassi, a sometimes-moody team owner, has seen him stay in the team for more than a decade.

After years of shying away from the media, he gives as good an interview as any Kiwi sportsman you'd hope to meet.

It's a balancing act, Dixon acknowledges, and one that is increasingly hard to do for a young driver to pull off, the more money becomes a factor.

"Typically you can put drivers into three categories," he says. "There's guys who are always quick - always at the front. There's the people that work well with sponsors that bring in money.

"And then there are the straight-out rich people now, who are making it.

"It's really tough. For young talent to come through, it's hard. With no testing added onto that, it's kind of good for veterans right now.

"You look at half the F1 field - they are probably bringing ten to fifteen million euros to drive - before you even get in the car.

"It's very hard a country for New Zealand to raise money like that. It's normally a South American situation, European - or Asian. They can come up with that kind of cash. It's definitely tough, right now."

Dixon's rise from kart, saloon and Formula Ford star is well-known in New Zealand, and the video of the 15-year-old crashing a Sentra at Pukekohe, with a pillow strapped to his behind, has become part of Kiwi motorsport folklore.

Dixon laughs when he is reminded of his story - one that he knows seems improbable at best, given his current standing in the IndyCar ranks.

"You look back, and think of all the trials, tribulations and weird ways you got to different seats and races, and meeting different people," he says.

"I think, coming from a small country with not much funding, in today's world would be pretty much impossible.

"Even in the time when I came through, it was a 50-50 chance whether you'd get through.

"The process on how it all came about - well, I don't think you could write a book to be any better."

Despite winning the IndyCar title last year, Dixon's life has become more family-orientated since he married Emma in 2008.

They have two kids - Poppy (4) and Tilly (2). After several years in Carmel, they are now looking at moving to the increasingly trendy Broad Ripple neighbourhood, which is closer to the centre of town.

Socially, they've got a tight-knit group of expat Kiwis, Australians and Brits whom they hang out with.

A few have been with Dixon since he moved here, such as Kiwi-born Chip Ganassi crew chief Blair Julian and his brother Anton - a crew chief for Sarah Fisher Racing.

Dixon will try to visit New Zealand twice a year, but will head to England seven or eight times to spend time with his wife's family.

Many say that that is where they will eventually settle once Dixon's IndyCar career ends.

Dixon hasn't thought about the potential timeline leading to his retirement yet, though. He points out the longevity of Franchitti as an example of how long you can last in the business.

"Everybody's different," Dixon says. "I think Dario opened a lot of eyes in the fact of making his time here longer.

"He was 40 and racing last year. If you look at that, five [more] years, for sure, is something sustainable.

"I think Dario, without his crash, would have raced for another two or three, maybe four years. While you've still got the passion, and while you love it, you can do it as long as you are competitive." That passion - the "pure love" of racing - is definitely still there for Dixon.

The highs of the sport are always paired with the lows. Three years ago, Dixon experienced the depths when his good friend, and fellow driver, Dan Wheldon died during racing in Las Vegas. Dixon was one of the Englishman's pall-bearers. Sure, he has questioned himself - which athlete hasn't - but that drive to succeed has never wavered.

"You get to the point where you think about hanging the hat up, or moving into less stressful racing series, like maybe sports cars, but it's still just the pure love of racing," Dixon says.

"The coolest part for me is when you are out there, whether it's testing or racing. Don't get me wrong, some days if you've got a shitty car, the first thing you want to do is get out of it.

"But the cool part to that is trying to work yourself around that and make the car better. So, there's many of different sides to it."

Tomorrow morning, Scott Dixon will devour a mountain of pancakes and head to work in front of 400,000 screaming fans - and millions watching on television around the world.

He'll only say as much as he needs to at the track - his mind will be already tracing each curve, each lap and each moment ahead on the Speedway.

"Scott always starts [May] off super upbeat, but slowly as we creep toward the 500, he starts to become a lot more focused," Emma says.

"He's a quiet chap at the best of times ... I'd say I'm doing all the talking from qualifying onwards, when the nerves start kicking in."

This may be Dixon's 12th start at the Brickyard in the Indy 500, but given the excitement in his voice when you ask him about, it might as well be his first.

It's the history he loves here. The tradition. The pressure. Tomorrow, there's no other place the lad from 'Rewa would rather be.

"You set two goals at the start of the season - firstly to win the 500 and secondly to win the championship," Dixon says.

There's a stern, determined look in his eyes.

"The 500 always comes first. You test here for a couple of weeks and you qualify, but there's nothing like race day.

"I've been lucky enough to go to World Cups, Olympic Games and a ton of things around the world.

"But you come in here with 350,000 to 400,000 people in one spot, and think about still doing traditions that people have been doing for over 100 years.

"Then to win it and be on a shortlist of 68 people to have ever achieved ... "

The stern look lightens and Dixon smiles. " ... well, it's pretty cool, man".

Sunday Star Times