AUCKLAND – It’s dreary and raining in “the CBD” of Auckland, 11 a.m. on Tuesday in the thick of New Zealand winter. A video conference connects with Scott Dixon, who has called from his home in Indiana, in the stickiness of a Midwest summer, where it is 6 p.m. on Monday.
Dixon grew up in Auckland until his racing dreams took him to Australia at age 16. And then two years later, accidentally, all the way to America. It is in the United States where Dixon has a two-plus decade run as the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation.
The first thing he asked The Associated Press was about the Auckland winter weather, laughing at the gloominess as he noted his last return there during its winter season was at least 20 years ago. Come to think of it, Dixon said, none of his friends even call him during New Zealand winter.
“Everyone hibernates,” Dixon shrugged.
Dixon's visa status when he first moved to the United States required him to make frequent trips back to New Zealand, a commute of 20-plus hours. He later became a summer-only visitor, but those trips eventually were curtailed by COVID restrictions, which kept him out for nearly three years.
When he finally returned last December with his own bi-continental family, he at last was able to introduce his only son, Kit, who was born in January 2020.
So from this quirky island country located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean and roughly the same size as Colorado, the AP asked Dixon how did he even dream of one day making it to the rest of the world.
“It's weird when you are there, you don't realize how far away from the world you are and how small you are,” Dixon replied. “When I go back now, I totally see it. It feels like you are going back to the '80s.”
New Zealand is now a hotbed for motorsports talent. Marcus Armstrong, his teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, is from New Zealand, as is Team Penske star Scott McLaughlin. Over in NASCAR, the guy who became the McLaughlin of V8 Supercars in Australia after McLaughlin left for Indy has already won his NASCAR debut. Shane van Gisbergen tries to make it 2-in-a-row this Sunday at Indianapolis.
But back before Dixon? No way.
His road to IndyCar was not planned, yet he's now a six-time champion. Dixon will add to his records Saturday when he makes his 319th consecutive start racing on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He got here almost by chance.
Dixon had $30,000 from the 14 members of the “The Scott Dixon Investment Group,” money meant to be spent on an F3 test in England. Somebody was talking to somebody and former Formula One driver Stefan Johansson mentioned he had an open seat for one day at the two-day IndyCar preseason test.
PacWest then said it also had an open day, and Dixon quickly detoured to Sebring International Raceway, in the middle of nowhere Florida.
“We were the quickest at the test and Stefan offered us a ride. So we didn't even make it to England,” Dixon said. “We had just enough money to pay for the test in England, but we had nothing for anything after that.”
Johansson had moved into team ownership and brought Dixon to Indianapolis for the 1999 season in the Indy Lights feeder series. To this day, he is Dixon's agent and very much inside the driver's smallest inner circle.
Dixon next got what he believes to be the only paying ride in the history of Indy Lights when Tony Renna negotiated deals for the two of them at PacWest for the 2000 Indy Lights season. Team owner Bruce McCaw later promoted Dixon to the CART Series, where at 20 years old and pretty much couchsurfing his way through the Indianapolis area, he became the youngest driver in the series.
He got the break of his life in 2002 when Chip Ganassi, already a winner of four consecutive championships, grabbed Dixon four races into the season. PacWest was cash-strapped and Dixon aborted one race before the team shuttered.
With Ganassi, Dixon has won six championships, only one shy of A.J. Foyt's record seven. His 53 series victories make him IndyCar's winningest active driver, and he ranks second on the all-time list, again behind Foyt, who won 67 races.
That success helped him buy his way out of the Dixon investment group, which held 60% of his earnings until he was clear of his commitment around 2006. He chuckles that two of the investors didn't want to be bought out, “they wanted 60% of me for the rest of my career.”
Because he's winless this year with only four races remaining, Dixon's record of 18 consecutive seasons with a victory is in jeopardy. But he'll hit one esteemed mark Saturday when Dixon passes good friend Tony Kanaan for the IndyCar record for most consecutive starts.
Dixon, who turned 43 last month, has been with Ganassi a staggering 22 years. That's more than any driver in Ganassi tenure — by more than half. Dixon admits he sometimes pushed too hard early in his Ganassi career, and this streak of consecutive starts would actually be longer but Ganassi sent Dixon home from Milwaukee in 2004 for wrecking two cars.
“I crashed a car in practice 2, then went straight out to qualify and crashed another car. Destroyed two cars in four laps, and we were out of cars. Chip sent me home,” Dixon said. “That was a wild year, man. I think I had like six or seven teammates in one year."
And yet Dixon made it. He says he and Ganassi work well together because of their radically different personalities.
“I think Chip and I get along, I guess, we don't have conflicting personalities. I am pretty chill and laid back, and you know, he's a bit of an aggressor," Dixon said. “That's fine, and I appreciate it — maybe not all the time — but in the times that it's called for.”
Dixon is nicknamed “The Iceman” because of his cool demeanor and he very much is just a laid-back racer from a tiny country. Ganassi, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, can erupt over the most banal occurrence. Asked years ago how Dixon had succeeded so long with Ganassi, the boss seemed to suggest it was the driver's low-maintenance. He noted that Dixon never calls him, at least not for any problems.
Dixon said he's just lucky that he's never been in a contract year at any time that Ganassi could have fired him. When drivers were being cycled through in 2004, Dixon was in the middle of a contract.
But that Dixon got to this ironman mark, and got there with just one team owner, is not a coincidence.
Ganassi uses the “#ILikeWinners” hashtag on social media posts celebrating team wins, and Dixon has done his part in winning. Dixon is no different than Ganassi in that winning, and is his family, is all that matters to him.
He picks 2008 as the best year of his life. That's by no coincidence the year he married wife, Emma, won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship, and learned he was expecting the first of his three children. His allegiance was made clear last year when he turned on teammate Alex Palou when Palou publicly denounced Ganassi and said he was moving to McLaren.
Palou still drives for Ganassi — he's the IndyCar points leader, while Dixon is third in the standings — and Dixon is now cordial with his teammate. But his firm public position was such a rare burst from Dixon that it felt personal.
And it was: Ganassi is Dixon's home, and his home had been disrespected.
“For me, it's all about winning,” Dixon said. "From the first day I walked through the door, the Ganassi shop, you can feel it. Nobody cared about anything else. They just wanted to be there to win. I'd heard of teams like that, but never worked with one.
“It's a relentless group of people that just want to win, and it's a pretty fun environment to be in, and Chip's the very same. I've been with other organizations where it was more about the activations and the promotions. I know all that stuff is important. But with Chip? The first is to win. And that's first. So long as you're doing that, everyone is happy.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing