Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Quiet and calm Dixon closes in on 6th IndyCar title

Scott Dixon was a quiet kid with rosy red cheeks when he left New Zealand looking for a career racing cars. He had little to say off the track and relied on performance to separate himself in a paddock full of superstars.

He won his third career CART Series start at tricky Nazareth Speedway but Dixon otherwise trudged along with a team most recognized because its cars starred in the racing movie “Driven.” When the team folded, then-manufacturer Toyota went to owner Chip Ganassi hoping he would help keep the the 20-year-old prospect in the system.

“Why not?” Ganassi remembered Monday. “He was a young kid and he didn’t really say much and he seemed to be fast. And he won right out of the box with PacWest at Nazareth, which in those days was not an easy track. I mean, that’s what I remember, just a quiet kid who was fast.”

Ganassi had no idea he had just hired the greatest driver of his generation.

In the 19 seasons since Dixon paired with Ganassi, the driver has rocketed through the American open wheel record books and is poised for another milestone. Dixon will race Sunday for his sixth IndyCar championship in the season finale on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.

Dixon must only finish ninth or better to clinch the championship and move within one title of A.J. Foyt’s record seven crowns. Foyt won his final title in 1979 and Dixon is the first driver since to rival that season-after-season consistency.

Dixon has 50 career victories, ranking him third all-time behind Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52), he’s won at least one race in all but one season of IndyCar competition, and he has been in title contention every year since 2007.

Five of those title fights went to Dixon, but Ganassi argues that Dixon’s resume doesn’t put enough emphasis on the nine consecutive years Dixon finished in the top three in championships that were decided in the finale. Dixon was beaten four times by Dario Franchitti, including three consecutive years as Ganassi teammates.

“You know everybody talks about how many wins Dixon has and how many championships he has, he’s had an unrivaled career in the modern day,” Ganassi said. “But what goes unnoticed is all the second and thirds he’s had in the series. It’s just such a pleasure to have somebody in your cars that anywhere you go, you can win. There aren’t too many guys like that.”

A sixth title is not automatic Sunday for Dixon even after he built a seemingly insurmountable points lead with three consecutive victories to open the pandemic-disrupted season. Most challengers conceded the title to Dixon by August, but reigning series champion Josef Newgarden did not.

Newgarden, winner of three races this season, has cut Dixon’s lead to 32 points with one race remaining. But even if Newgarden wins the race, Dixon would need a disastrous day to lose the title.

Dixon very rarely has disastrous days.

There’s both a steadiness and a professionalism about Dixon that makes him one of the most calculated racers of his time. He is a clean and smart racer, one who doesn’t make mistakes and avoids placing his car in dangerous positions.

“I’ve always felt that he and I were very similar and have approached racing the same way — very methodical, calculated, risk assessment is usually very good,” said seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Now connected at Ganassi as teammates for Johnson’s 2021 move to IndyCar, others have noted similarities in the two standard bearers for their respective series. When the two began working together, Johnson learned he and Dixon debrief in a similar manner.

“Looking at data with him, it was like I was talking to a teammate I’d been with for years. It’s so methodical,” Johnson said.

Dixon, now a 40-year-old father of three, is Ganassi’s most tenured driver but still the same quiet Kiwi first hired in 2002.

“He still doesn’t have much to say, it’s his temperament. There’s certain things he gets involved in, and if it doesn’t affect him, he doesn’t get involved,” Ganassi said. “In some sense, he’s still that same guy. But that’s what makes him good.”