By Ryan Dixon (No Relation)
By Ryan Dixon (No Relation)
Closing in on Mario Andretti on the all-time wins list, Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon is eyeing a second win at the Indy 500 — and plenty more years of racing

S cott Dixon has been racing in the NTT IndyCar Series for nearly 20 years. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver now has 49 career victories, putting him just three back of the legendary Mario Andretti for second place on the all-time American open-wheel racing list, and on Sunday, he’ll be gunning for No. 50, along with his second win at the Indianapolis 500. The five-time IndyCar series champ — who leads the chase this year, too — spoke to Sportsnet about what it will be like to see some fans at the 500, how being married to an elite-level athlete has shaped his career and what it’s like to be mentioned among racing’s legends.

The entire sports world was in flux because of the pandemic, IndyCar starts and you come out of the blocks and win the first three races. What allowed for the hot start?

A lot of hard work in the off-season. It was strange because we made it to the first race of the season [in St. Petersburg, Fla., originally scheduled for March 15] and everything got cancelled on the Friday of the event. I actually went to a charity race on the Wednesday with the St. Pete mayor and he was like, “Oh, we’re monitoring and everything looks pretty good.” Once you started hearing that Disney World was kind of closed and the NBA was going to stop games, that’s when you know [the race weekend] is not going to go any further. So you’ve gone through that pre-season testing and hype and getting ready to go and you end up doing nothing.

But we used the downtime well. It was hard for everybody not knowing when the next race was going to be … but we feel very fortunate to be doing what we love. In Texas [for the Genesys 300], the car was very dominant. The Indy road course [for the GMR GP] and Road America were slightly different and we used strategy to our advantage and the team did a fantastic job. To start a season with [three straight wins] was huge for us.

There were no fans at the first two events, but a limited number were allowed onto the sprawling grounds at Road America. What was it like seeing them again and, given how personal interaction with fans is a core part of the IndyCar experience, what has it been like not being able to mix with people?

It was fantastic [seeing fans at the track again]. It felt so weird when we were at Texas and it’s very quiet, almost felt like a test day more than a race. Indianapolis, we were hoping the road course was going to be the first actual race [with fans]. Unfortunately nobody could be there [yet]. Road America was good. It was fun to be back and any time you’re in Victory Lane is amazing. To see the fans in Victory Lane and see everybody following the protocols and wearing masks was huge.

You could see some of the fans beyond the gates [at Road America], but you couldn’t really interact with them, you couldn’t really sign things. So it was still definitely a bit awkward. [Usually] you’re out [meeting fans and sponsors] throughout the weekend and [interacting] throughout the paddock. It’s been very, very surreal.

Our schedule [keeps] changing, that’s been one of the harder parts. It looked like [The Grand Prix of Portland] was going to happen, then with the unrest they’ve had there recently, that’s been scrapped [along with another at Laguna Seca in Northern California]. Right at the moment the whole month of September is off. It definitely makes for an interesting season. The double-headers [two races in one weekend] are extremely tough, not just on the drivers but for the teams and crews — to try and knock out all that stuff in a two-day period is crazy.

The Indy 500 is known for having crowds of over 300,000 people. The grandstands are typically just an unbroken wall of humans. You will have some fans there, but not the full boat. What do you think that will be like?

They’re talking about 25 per cent, which is still a ton of people. I think it will feel very strange. Indianapolis, for the most part, never looks that full no matter what event is there unless it’s the Indianapolis 500 … It’s definitely better than not having fans at all. But, yeah, just a strange situation, again, for many people. But if you’re lucky enough to be in Victory Lane drinking that milk, it’s not going to matter one bit.

You had a massive crash in 2017 at the 500, though you walked away unscathed. Some people really question the safety of open-wheel racing on ovals [because the cars are able to reach such high speeds while travelling side-by-side on those tracks]. What are your thoughts?

I think safety has come a long ways. If you look at the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, drivers in these pinnacle series were losing friends, you know, every other week. It’s always going to be dangerous. Anything that’s going, at Indianapolis, almost 250 miles an hour, it’s just part of it. Motor racing can be dangerous. But I think we’re very lucky to be in the era that we are right now with the safety upgrades that we’ve seen, especially in the last two decades.

What did it mean for your sport when Roger Penske — the boss of your chief rival, Team Penske — purchased Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series itself from the Hulman family?

I think we’re very lucky to have someone like him come in and take care of it. In some ways you can say it’s tough because it’s a bit of a conflict of interest. [But] Roger has such a passion for motor racing. If the family were looking at moving on — which they were — you know, this is really the first person you would think of [to buy it.]

This is probably the toughest time ever for this acquisition to occur. I’m thankful it was Roger. And what he’s done for the series, it’s going to take time for it to play out. He’s a very methodical person and goes in deep to see what areas need to be helped. But I think, for the future of the sport and understanding what direction it needs to go, he’s the right person who will have the pull and the determination to pull off the future TV and sponsorship deals and [bring] the respect a lot of people look for.

Watch Scott Dixon race for history at the Indianapolis 500, Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet NOW.

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What goes through your mind when I say you’ve been racing in the U.S. now for 20 years?

Thankful. That’s the biggest part. It’s been going well for a lot of those years. I think the biggest thing for me is, you always think about the ones that kind of got away or the close misses — championships and race wins and 500s and things like that. But [I’m] extremely fortunate. I love racing here. It’s an amazing formula to be a part of and I’m just very, very blessed and very lucky to have had such a long career. Hopefully it continues for a lot longer.

It doesn’t sound like you plan on downshifting any time soon?

Not really. I think it’s really hard to determine. Motor racing, in general, it changes so quickly from year to year. But I definitely want to get another three, four, five years — we’ll have to see at this point. That’s just in IndyCar, then there’s the possibility of sportscars. It’s a very personal decision on many fronts. Maybe when the small things start to annoy you a little more than they should, then that’s probably a good time to look at doing something else. But I just love it so much, I don’t see [retiring] in the foreseeable future.

Your off-season included the birth of your third child and first son, Kit, in December. How has family life been?

It’s been awesome. The girls — Poppy and Tilly — have really enjoyed the addition to the family. They’re nine and 11, so there’s a bit of a gap there, but they’ve been great little helpers.

Your wife was a British and European track champion in the 800 metre. Is it possible to overstate the influence she’s had on you both personally and professionally?

Emma’s been a tremendous help in many ways, but I think it’s just more our partnership and [operating like] teammates. We just gel so well that it’s easy. When you get into a relationship like that, everything just flows. She’s been a massive support. Especially on the road, you can let [your eating habits] slip. She has great determination in those ways. And with her sport, you know, she was the engine. It’s ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’

You’re right on Mario Andretti’s heels in terms of all-time wins and the only guy ahead of him is A.J. Foyt with 67 victories. Can you wrap your head around being in that company?

It’s amazing to be [among names like] A.J. and Mario and Michael and the Unsers. Once I started climbing into the top five or six for all-time wins and it became a lot more prominent — it’s not really something I track — but when it became a topic a conversation, you hear about it a lot more. Obviously getting a little bit closer to Mario to fight for second place all-time is cool. These are legends of the sport, people I’ve looked up to for many years. And the fantastic thing is that we’re still able to spend time with these people at the track. They’re at every race.

And it’s not just me, it’s the team. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Chip Ganassi for 19 years. We’ve achieved a lot together. And it’s always been about what this team has been able to provide and what we’ve been able to do as a group.

You hit the big 4-0 about a month ago. How did you deal with that milestone?

It’s kind of lacklustre, right? Obviously you can’t really do anything. There was no party. It was Emma and myself and a bottle of wine, and we just kind of chilled out. Emma is quite ageist and I think had a little bit of trouble when she hit 40. I don’t know. It’s just a number. A lot of people say that 40 is the new 28, but mostly that’s 40- and 50-year-olds. For me, I think it’s fun because you’re healthy and you can enjoy your life. Age is just one of the things that goes with it.

Photo Credits

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images; Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images; Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.