Tomorrow's season opening IndyCar race in Florida looks set to be a step into the unknown for leading New Zealand driver Scott Dixon, reports Jack Barlow .
After a long winter break Scott Dixon, who last year finished third behind champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Australian Will Power, has had a fairly mellow off-season.
Going into the opening race tomorrow, he has spent all of three days testing the car.
It's a big change from last year, where about 12-15 days of solid testing were done. He appears to be on the pace, judging by his consistent top-six finishes in the few pre-season tests that were run, although he, for one, isn't reading too much into those results.
"Well, it's hard to tell what's going to happen until we hit the opening round," he said.
"Everything's so different from last year, with the new car and everything, and testing has been pretty wide open."
Dixon suffered bad luck with reliability last year, with engine issues blowing several points finishes and hampering his bid for a third championship title. Although he is hoping the Honda engines his Chip Ganassi team uses will be more reliable this year, without much testing under their belt it is, he said, hard to really tell.
"The biggest unknown is with the engines," he said.
"The problem with last year was that, when you blew one, you had a 10-spot grid penalty, and we blew about five. One engine lasted all of about 40 miles or so . . . so it all hurt us quite badly.
"It sucks, because it's easy points being thrown away but, you know, that's motor racing."
With all the uncertainty, it looks to be an interesting year ahead. Will Power has so far been topping most of the timesheets in testing, while Dixon also singled out the traditional front-running bunch of Hunter-Reay, team-mate Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan as ones to keep an eye on.
He also paid special attention to newcomer and current Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier, referring to him as the "dark horse" of the pack.
While the off-season has been mostly quiet on the track, behind the scenes it has been anything but. IndyCar has been struggling in the all-important television ratings, lagging far behind rival sports such as the exceedingly popular Nascar series.
Mark Miles, the newly appointed CEO of IndyCar series owners Hulman & Co, commissioned a report that suggested changes such as a three-race playoff and an end-of-season trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road track to boost popularity.
While nobody is quite sure which, if any, of the changes he is considering, there is a general consensus that most of IndyCar's woes stem from a convoluted and sub-par television deal.
Dixon is one of the few drivers who has actually met Miles. The two of them attended dinner and a basketball game together several months ago, with the new CEO catching his fellow Indianapolis resident as part of a series of meet-and-greets with IndyCar's important figures.
Dixon was impressed, and thinks that Miles may just be the man for the job.
"He seems like a great guy, really switched on," he said.
"He's very experienced in other sports - he's overseen tennis, the Super Bowl when it was held in Indianapolis - so he's coming in to move some people around and sort some things out. Especially the TV deals, which are really holding the series back.
"I certainly think all the talent's there . . . if it was on a big-time cable channel you automatically have a lot of people tuning in. The audience is already there."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Dixon's entry into the IndyCar series. In that time he's built up one of the most impressive records in the sport's history: not only has he won two championships, in 2003 and 2008, he has only finished outside the top four twice in 10 years of competition. He also won the Indianapolis 500, one of the most prestigious races in world motorsport, in 2008.
He's not stopping yet, either; last year he signed a multi-year deal with his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, making him one of the sport's veteran competitors. He is already Ganassi's longest-serving driver, having been racing with the team since 2002.
"It's cool to get to have a career with a team like this," he said.
"They're a very successful team, and in a lot of ways they're almost like a second family to me. I've known some of the people in the team longer than I've known some of my closest friends. So why change something that works?"
While there's no word just yet on how long Dixon plans to stay in the sport, he points to 39-year-old Franchitti as someone who, as he put it, "is kind of opening doors for us to stick around".
Being there until his late thirties or early forties, it seems, would not be much of a stretch.
Things have, naturally, changed over time. While in the past his off season was filled with leisure activities - he is especially keen on flying - he's now more focused on wife Emma Dixon-Davies and their two young daughters Poppy and Tilly.
The kids go to six or seven races throughout the year, while Emma is on hand about 70 per cent of the time.
Not that it's changed much concerning his driving; as Dixon puts it, "it doesn't change my work ethic or anything."
Indeed, driving is still his true passion. After six long months, he's finally about to satisfy his urge to get back on track, back among the action. And he couldn't be happier.
"For me, all I look forward to is racing and driving the car," he said.
"I can't wait to get back into it."
FIRST FIVE RACES
March 25: Streets of St Petersburg, Florida
April 8: Barber Motorsports Park, Alabama
April 22: Streets of Long Beach, California
May 6: Streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil
May 26: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indianapolis
* NZ time
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