Let’s ignore for a moment the debate about ovals and what constitutes pack racing and talk about what happens when you let Indy cars loose at a proper road racing venue.
Not a Mickey Mouse, concrete-canyon street course. Good ones are few and far between and they usually produce results like what we saw Sunday in Baku, where Formula 1 did a pretty solid job of replicating a bad IndyCar street race.
Meanwhile, the IndyCar Series raced at Road America, a classic natural terrain road course, one with long enough straights to let the cars stretch out and create the circumstances that allow faster entries to move up through the field if the team and the driver have the savvy to make it happen.
On Saturday, Scott Dixon said he was racing for “best in class” after qualifying his Ganassi Racing Honda fifth behind the four Team Penske Chevrolets, 1.6 seconds off Helio Castroneves’ pole-winning pace. The prevailing attitude was that Team Penske’s speed advantage over the rest of the field was insurmountable.
Of course, by now we all know that you can never count Dixon out. With the help of longtime strategist Mike Hull, who was celebrating his 25th anniversary working with Chip Ganassi Racing this weekend, the four-time IndyCar Series champion produced one of the greatest drives of his career to put a whipping on the Penske foursome.
It’s the kind of performance that probably couldn’t have happened on a tight and twisty street course with few passing opportunities and an inevitable series of full-course cautions for crashes or debris.
Some people enjoy street course crash-fests and the unpredictable (and often unrepresentative) results they usually produce. But count me among those who enjoy watching Indy cars being stretched to their limits, with 200-mph straights and fast, sweeping corners with speeds that aren’t that much lower.
Incidents are generally few and far between at fast road courses like Road America and Watkins Glen International, which often means that races there are won on skill and speed rather than blind luck.
That’s how Dixon, Honda and the Ganassi team won on Sunday. Dixon’s 41 career Indy car wins put him fourth on the all-time list, just one behind Michael Andretti.
There are many reasons why Dixon should be considered one of the greatest Indy car racers of any era. He’s fast when he needs to be, and he’s one of the best at maintaining his speed while saving fuel, which is absolutely vital for the current crop of drivers.
At Road America, Dixon was one of just three drivers who were able to stretch their first tank of fuel to Lap 14 of 55. A quick in-lap moved Dixon from fourth to third, taking the position from Penske’s Will Power, and the New Zealander quickly began to close on leaders Castroneves and Josef Newgarden.
Penske recognized the threat coming from Dixon – “He was gaining on us quite a bit,” said Team Penske president Tim Cindric – and orchestrated Newgarden past Castroneves into the lead. At this point, Dixon had moved up one position and cut a 7-second deficit to the leader prior to the first round of pit stops to 2.9 seconds.
Castroneves pitted on Lap 28, with Newgarden and Dixon, on the same strategy, following suit a lap later. Once again, Dixon gained a position, emerging from the pits in second place and perhaps benefitting from the yellow for Takuma Sato’s spin at The Kink that prevented Castroneves from taking advantage of his one-lap warmer tires.
On the restart, Dixon demonstrated his ability to race wheel-to-wheel by passing Newgarden for the lead going around the outside at Turn 1. Admittedly, Dixon was on grippier Firestone ‘red’ tires while Newgarden was on the standard ‘blacks,’ but it was still an impressive and audacious move.
“It was a good pass,” Newgarden told reporters after the race. “I tried to race him as clean as I could. I went as deep as I could with him on the black tires. That’s as hard as I could go without running into him, into the side. I tried to give him some racing room.”
From there, Dixon controlled the pace and held off Newgarden at the finish by 0.558 second as Team Penske took what could only be called a disappointing 2-3-4-5 result in a race they expected to win. Pole man Castroneves (his milestone 50th, tops among active drivers) held on to the final podium position ahead of Simon Pagenaud and Power.
Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball earned the real “best of the rest honors” by finishing sixth, 15 seconds down on teammate Dixon.
“Very gratifying,” Dixon related after the race. “[The Team Penske drivers] looked pretty disappointed. They’re always the team you’ve got to beat. Championship fights, they’re the ones that are going to come down to it. Especially with their lineup right now, four very strong cars, as you can see with qualifying, makes it very difficult to get one out.
“We raced as hard as we could,” he added. “We had a little bit of luck go our way. We had good strategy. The pit stops were fantastic. These are the days you have to capitalize on trying to beat them. We did as a group. Yeah, it feels good when you can achieve that.”
Dixon stretched his championship lead to 34 points over Pagenaud and 37 over Castroneves. Newgarden (-61) and Power (-63) are fifth and sixth in the standings, split from their Penske teammates by Takuma Sato, who remains in the hunt 56 points back thanks to his big haul of points at the Indianapolis 500.
“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” said Newgarden. “Scott was great today and so was Ganassi Racing. Those guys did a great job and were certainly very deserving of the win.
“But that’s tough coming up a little bit short.”
Dixon could only marvel at his latest triumph. He doesn’t like to talk about what he has achieved in historical perspective, but the statistics speak for themselves.
“Yesterday, I didn’t really think we would be in this situation,” he said. “But huge credit to Honda. The engine is very strong. They don’t really have to turn it down for the race, which definitely performs very well for us. To get the fuel mileage, as well, is always very difficult when you’re making so much power.”
Dixon led the championship coming into Road America without having won a race with a Honda aero package that is still thought to be inferior to the competition for Chevrolet. Now he and the Ganassi team are headed to a series of tracks where they have been historically strong in the past, including Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Watkins Glen.
Given Dixon’s mastery of those traditional road courses, it is perhaps surprising that until Sunday he hadn’t won at Elkhart Lake. Then again, he’s only raced Indy cars there four times.
He won at Nazareth Speedway as a CART series rookie in 2001 driving for PacWest Racing, but often overlooked is the fact that one of Dixon’s finest performances that year came at Road America, where he finished fourth after making seven pit stops under yellow to replace his rear wing after incurring damage from debris from Memo Gidley’s huge accident in a Ganassi Racing car.
Later that year, two-time Indy car champion Gil de Ferran told me: “Dixon is in his rookie season, but he has a fantastic head on his shoulders. He’s a tremendous driver. He really drove extremely well all year long. He was very strong, mature and fast, all in one package.”
Back in 2001, not too many people predicted that the quiet kid from New Zealand being tutored by respected veterans like Mauricio Gugelmin, Russell Cameron and the late John Anderson would turn out to be one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time.
But as long as the IndyCar Series continues to race at venues like Road America that emphasize talent over luck, Scott Dixon will re-write the record book.