Next year, Scott Dixon will be returning to IndyCar racing as the defending champion, as one of few three-time champions, and as one of the toughest racers on the planet. The 33-year-old New Zealander is coming off winning the 2013 title, in the final race of the season, a season that had an extremely rough start. Out of 220 starts, he now has accumulated 33 wins, 20 poles, an astounding 108 Top 5 finishes. The gentleman racer stopped by the Complex offices last week to talk about winning spacing his three wins over a span of 10 years, how the sport has changed over his career, and what could be next for him.
Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
Winning three chamionships in any sport is a huge deal. What was it like to get No. 3?
I think that they’re all so different. The first one I was twenty-two, twenty-three, the second one I was married, and then the third one I was married with kids and was quite a different championship year. I think the first one was very unexpected. I was young and didn’t really know what I’d done. The second one was just a storybook year. I ended up getting married in February, winning the 500 in May, then winning the championship in October. This one, we started the season quite slow. We had a really big peak in the middle, then we had a few issues after that. Going into the last race leading by 25 points, you always think that it can be taken away.
In 2007 and 2009 we’d come so close, too. [In '07], we ran out of fuel on the last corner, then '09 we were on the wrong strategy. I guess it's the fun part about Indy car racing. For the last eight years in a row, it's come down to the last race, the last scenario. You would much prefer if you hadn’t thrown up a race or two really, but that’s not reality. So, this year felt really good, just because we never really thought we had it. To finally come through and go through the crazy ups and downs was pretty special.
So the second time was the best overall year. Which was the best victory?
This was the best championship and the craziest way to go about winning it.
How old are your kids now?
Poppy’s four and Tilly’s two. They’re crazy.
Are they starting to understand what’s going on a little bit?
Poppy’s really into it. She has a massive personality. She gets that from her mother. Poppy is really into the racing and she knows most of the drivers. I think her favorite is probably, after me of course, Dario [Franchitti] and Alex [Tagliani]. Whenever Alex only comes over, she’s always quite fond of him. Tilly is getting into it but she’s really standoffish, quite stuffy that one. You try and hold her hand and she wants to do it on her own. She’s really funny but she can be quite cheeky too. It's funny seeing their personalities evolve through the years. It's really really cool how different they are. They look totally different and their personalities are totally different.
Funny how that works out, right? But back to the racing. How different is the appreciation the second and third times?
The appreciation changes a lot. I think for the way we’ve done it, with a five-year gap between each, you really appreciate it, because after the first one you think maybe I’ll only get one. And then after the second, you’re like, man, that's really going to be it. Whereas someone like Dario kinda banged them all out pretty quickly, which is a nice way to do it. It's easier to wrack them up over a four-year period as opposed to 10 years.
So, in life in general, as you get older, you appreciate different things. You understand how competitive it is, how cut-throat it can be, and then also the fact that you’re very lucky to be doing it from the get-go. I would definitely like to have them more often than every five years. That will be the goal from now on out.
In a lot of other sports, it's usually kind of clustered together like with Dario. But then you have you, who is winning occasionally over such a large timespan. What do you think that says about the sport?
I don’t know. For us, what’s at the forefront is the ones that we lost; those ones hurt. Yes, winning is fantastic, and I think what makes it feel so good are the ones where you came so close. The losses are the ones you profoundly remember.
In one way it’s gratifying to win over a 10-year period three different times, in totally different cars, in three different styles. And the other important part is that, since ‘08, it's now a combined series, with Champ car to Indy car. It's funny to look back on it, how much it's changed, but it's a good thing we’ve still been able to compete and win races.
What are some of the biggest differences from when you first started and now?
A big difference is that the technology is constantly changing. You look at 2003, the championship was all ovals, so it was only an oval racing series. Mechanical problems were a lot more profound. I think I won the championship and had five DNFs or six DNFs out of only 16 races.
And then 2008 was more of a spec car, so you had all the same cars, all the same engines. It was almost more difficult to win that way because you’re racing against people with exactly the same cars. And then this year, it's evolved in the fact that, yes, there’s new technology, cars are a lot safer, but then also you’ve got the manufacture influence with Chevy and Honda. It’s kind of weird how one engine is built in a totally different part of the world than another, but yet, when they come onto the race track, taking Fontana for example, the engine manufacturer decided who won. To have those two things working on the aerodynamics of all the Chevy cars and the aerodynamics of all the Honda cars, yet to be so close on track was pretty cool.
The older cars in 2002, the CART cars were probably the most fun. You had 1,000 horsepower, as opposed to now where you have 700- 750. Those cars were pretty animal to drive.
Were those more difficult?
I thought so, but then you kind of find different areas in the car. Now it's really about momentum, making sure you carry the speed through the corner. But back in those days, you had 1,000 horsepower, 35-gallon tanks so you really had to manage tires. You had to manage how the balance and how the weight would change. Now we have an 18-gallon tank, so the weight was a big difference. I wouldn’t say it was any more difficult than it is now, you just had to focus on different areas.
You've finished Top 10 in almost half of your races and have more than 150 consecutive starts. How are you able to stay so consistent and so healthy?
I think a lot of it is the team. Team Target is always one of the teams to go out there and compete and try and win races. I think you get lucky in some situations where, if you’ve had a big crash, they give us a bit of a break to the next race or something which helps. But for me, out of the 33 wins, 32 have been with this team, so a lot of credit goes to a team that has great partners and that is very competitive. We have the chance to win all the time, so even if you’re having a bad day, they somehow work out strategy to make it a little bit better.
What was the lowest point point in your career?
I think the 2004 and 2005 season as a whole was pretty rough. We were with two other engines and they were kind of struggling at that point against the dominant Honda. I think my worst day in that period was probably Milwaukee. I think it was. I can’t remember if it was ‘04 or ‘05, that's how hard I hit the wall. We were completed destroyed, two cars within four laps.
We went out and practiced, crashed one. Then we qualified into the second round, crashed another one. Those times were really tough, and I think I was lucky in some scenarios that my contract kind of breached that period and I made it through. There were definitely a lot of different teammates at that period. I think I had four or five different teammates in that year or two. That was probably the two years that I learned the most as a driver, on and off the track. I think the team did, as well, with finding different areas to try and improve the car. Those were some pretty low moments there.
What kinds of things did you learn?
In racing, not to overextend yourself, understand what the boundaries are, to finish the race first rather than just trying to go for the quickest lap and look spectacular for a short amount of time. But also to redirect focus. I learned not to focus on the problem at hand. Like ,"okay, we have that or we can’t change it, we just need to work around it and try and create areas of advancing the car or making it easier to drive." And just life in general. I'm lucky to be doing this job, so don’t treat those people poorly because what they’re making isn’t maybe as fast as the other one. They’re working their hardest as well. I think it was understanding a lot of different ups and downs and emotions. Emotions I’d say are probably the biggest part.
Has there ever been a point where you’ve thought about stopping?
No, not really. For me, I’ve raced since I was seven years old, so it feels normal. I still wake up thinking about it and wanting to go to a race track so no, definitely not.
We recently had the anniversary of Tony Renna and Dan Weldon passing away. What do you think of some of the safety advancements that they’ve made and what do you think of the safety of the sport?
Close friends for sure. You know, it's ever revolving. Will we ever get to the point of fixing it, making sure there's no crashes or deaths or incidents? No, it's probably never going to happen, that's the reality of the sport. But they’ve definitely made good advancements in the seats. I think that has been a big one since I started, with having more cushion under your butt, for protecting your back, you’ve got the harness device, you’ve got the technology change in the helmets, the crushable structures around the car, the side intrusion parts on the side of the tubs so nothing comes through into the car.
So, if you look at some of the different crashes throughout the years, even Dario’s recent crash in Houston, was pretty spectacular, but he’s going to be ok. That's when you see the advancements actually work. The tub and everything in that car did its job well, but there's always room for improvement with the catch fences and the walls and the track safety.
Considering Juan Pablo is coming back, have you ever thought about ever trying something different? How do you keep it interesting for yourself when you keep winning?
Well, it's not often enough! For me, each year is different. The engines change, the tires change, the competition changes a little bit, but once you win a championship, you want to win it again that much more just because of the feeling that you had when doing it. It's the same with an [Indy] 500, so that's what keeps you going. I haven’t got to the point where some people have changed directions in formula or series to try something else. I think the closest I ever came was I ran Jamie McMurray’s McDonald’s car at Talladega.
When was that?
Like two years ago, three years ago? And I was meant to do a test for Chip Ganassi in New Smyrna just by Datona Beach last year, but never got around to it. I want to have a go in a [Sprint] cup car just to try it, but as far moving to that series or something, probably not. I love Indy car. I think it's one of the purest motor sports in the competition and just the racing right now is fantastic.
We tried a little bit right after my 2003 championship to veer off into Formula One and it was going okay. Timelines and stuff just didn’t match up. Webber ended up joining Williams at the time, and I was trying to go there, so it never really worked out. And to be at that point winning the championship, I think the only option at the end of that was to be a test driver for that year. I could have been lost forever on that stuff, but I love racing Indy car.
What did you think of Talladega?
It has crazy banks, but I think the problem when you go there by yourself and you’re just the only car out there, is that it's not a big deal. But if there were 42 other crazies out there, then that would be forlorn. I wanted to do the short track one at New Smyrna or one of those test tracks to try and carry it full power, so hopefully Chip will let me in the not too distant future.
And finally ... who has the foulest mouth in racing?
I think I’d have a pretty good shot at that. I’m from New Zealand, mate, it can be pretty rough down there.