May 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Q&Auto: IndyCar star Dixon preps for Belle Isle

Scott Dixon rounds turn 8 at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in 2012. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News, file)

Memorial Day weekend belongs to the Indianapolis 500. Next week belongs to the Belle Isle Grand Prix. Last year belonged to Scott Dixon.

IndyCarís defending champion ó and most accomplished driver ó will come to the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as a child phenom-turned-grizzled veteran. What hasnít changed is the winning. At 33 Dixonís accomplishments would make Mozart jealous.

Maybe itís in his DNA. His parents were both dirt track racers in New Zealand, after all. Dixonís prodigious talent and fiery competitiveness were recognized early. At age 13, he was granted a special competition license to jump from go-kart racing to New Zealand sedan racing ó even though he was two years shy of the legal age to drive a car. He would go on to win everything he entered.

National Formula Vee champion at 14. National Formula Ford champion at age 15 and so on. He was given a ride stateside at the age of 19 after shattering the Sebring Raceway, Florida, lap record at his first Indy Lights test in 1999. He won Indy Lights the following year. At age 20, he had an IndyCar seat (then called CART) and became the second youngest driver ever to win an Indy car race. Championships followed in 2003, 2008, and 2013 with Chip Ganassi Racing. He sits fourth in the standings as the series enters Memorial Day.

Heís won Indy. And Detroit. And the 24 Hours of Daytona (in a sports car). Autosport named him one of the 50 greatest drivers to have never raced Formula One. He is a national hero in New Zealand, yet when I sat down with him courtside at a Detroit Pistons game, few recognized this modest father of two. We talked Belle Isle, Corvettes, and more.

HP: How much of a role does fitness play in your job?

Dixon: Weíre pulling up to 4 Gs on some of the short ovals and road courses. In the winter itís weights, biometrics, reactions ó high intensity stuff. Once spring hits, you do a lot more cycling, running, swimming. You start to get race fit as well (with) your neck. You go to a track like Barber (in Alabama) and by the end of the day your head is starting to lay over in the corners.

HP: You do sports car endurance racing as well. How does that compare physically?

Dixon: It depends. At Daytona you have so many straights you get to relax. But the heat is tougher in those cars, whereas the open Indy cars have built in air conditioning when you go 200 mph.

HP: How do you like Belle Isle?

Dixon: Itís actually quite a technical circuit. The turn I really love is the fast corner onto the front straight. Itís pretty crazy there ó quick, and very bumpy. Turns one and two are quite tricky too because of the surface change and bumps. The new track layout creates better passing which last year was a great addition.

HP: You do back-to-back weekends with Indy. Is Belle Isle more demanding?

Dixon: Indy is very mentally tough because of the emphasis thatís put on it. All your sponsors are there. The team is really pushing itself to win. Itís such a long three weeks and the fact that, when youíre on the oval, itís not as physical ó but youíre on the edge so often. Detroit is really physical and with the (Saturday and Sunday races) it makes it twice as hard.

HP: When you were young was it your dream to race in the U.S.? Or in Formula One?

Dixon: I watched all racing, but New Zealand has a rich heritage with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and Chris Amon in F1. But I still watched the Indianapolis 500. At a young age you think racing just happens. You donít know the financial risks your parents are taking or the sponsors who are trying to help you. Did I ever think it would get to this point? Not really.

HP: Was it a conscious decision to come to the U.S. over Europe?

Dixon: We were heading to Europe and Formula 3. But Kenny Smith, my mentor and manager when I was in New Zealand, knew Vern Schuppan who was running Stefan Johanssonís Indy Lights team at the time. He said theyíll give us a test. That changed my career path.

HP: Whatís your daily driver?

Dixon: A Chevy Tahoe. Iím a little tight with my money. Whenever I buy a flashy car I feel like Iím wasting money.

HP: Whatís your dream car?

Dixon: I have an appreciation for older cars. The American muscle cars. But it will take me a long time to figure out which one. I have the Corvette pace car (I won at) Indy 2008. But Iíve only driven it twice. Itís in storage.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Dixon won first place at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News, file)