Think of Scott Dixon as IndyCar’s Roger Federer.
As he enters his 20th year in American open-wheel racing this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, Dixon has dominated the sport like few before him. Like Federer in tennis, Dixon has been a constant at the top of the sport, winning five championships and amassing more wins (46) than any driver before him save for Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt.
He was the youngest-ever (20) winner in his first year, won his first championship in his third season, and has finished outside the Top Five in points only five times. Shortly after the Detroit Grand Prix this May, he will turn 40 while racing neck-and-neck with young guns half his age.
“It’s interesting to see how each generation shifts,” he said in an interview from his home in Indianapolis. “It’s what drives you. It’s purely competition, and with these young guys there’s been a big insurgence in recent years in IndyCar. I’m loving it.”
One of those young guys this year will be 23-year-old rookie Oliver Askew of Sweden, part of a bumper crop of new talent, who punched his ticket to the NTT IndyCar Series by winning the Indy Lights feeder championship last year, just like New Zealand-native Dixon did 20 years ago on the heels of a dominant 2000 Indy Lights campaign.
Dixon has tasted success on Detroit’s rugged street course — winning here three times — but not at St. Petersburg.
“I’ve never won there, which is something that bugs me,” says the veteran nicknamed the Iceman. “We had some great pre-testing, and the team has done a great job gearing up for the season.”
Though both St. Pete and Detroit are street courses, Dixon emphasizes that they are dramatically different from the cockpit, primarily because of Belle Isle’s concrete surface.
“Detroit is its own bag, really. It’s a concrete circuit and it’s quite rough just with where all the seams are and how the concrete lays,” he said. “Technically, St. Pete has a little more grip and a little more high-speed. Detroit has . . . very low grip in some areas.”
Detroit commuters know what he’s talking about.
Dixon has been at the top of IndyCar for so long in part because he is a master of all surfaces. Again, the Federer analogy applies.
The 38-year old Swiss legend has won his 20 tennis titles on grass, hard courts, and clay. IndyCar is like no other racing series on the planet — requiring drivers to win on street courses, road courses, short-track ovals, and super-speedway ovals if they are to take home the crown after 17 races.
That versatility is no more in evidence than the week of May 24-31 when racers will transition from the banked Indianapolis super-speedway to two punishing races on Belle Isle’s mean streets.
“That’s the biggest extreme you can have,” said Dixon, who won the coveted Indy 500 in 2008. “One week you’re at 250 mph with almost no downforce on the car — about 1,500 pounds — and then go to a street course topping out at 170 mph but with 6,000 pounds of downforce on the car. I love that mix as a driver.”
It wasn’t always so.
Dixon came to US open-wheel racing from the epic road courses of New Zealand and Australia — “my all-time favorite’s Philip Island, which is just outside of Melbourne” — but had to quickly adapt to the banked ovals adored by American fans.
“Honestly, (my) first year in 2001, I didn’t get along well with the ovals,” said Dixon, even though he had had success in Indy racing’s junior series, Indy Lights. A move to Chip Ganassi’s racing team in 2002, however, was a turning point. He’s been with Ganassi ever since.
“Once I moved to Ganassi and had a good base of (chassis) setups, it was a good mind shift for me. We went on to win the championship,” he said, recalling an era when the open-wheel series was split between CART and the Indy Racing League. All 16 IRL races were held on ovals.
Through his two decades of success in the U.S., Dixon has had numerous rivals including champions Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, and most recently Josef Newgarden. But perhaps no driver has been as consistently excellent over the last decade as Will Power — an Australian who is the same age as Dixon.
Named Autoweek’s top two “Drivers of the Decade,” (Dixon is No. 1) they are the only two pilots to have finished in the Top 10 in points the last 10 years.
Yet, where Federer and Rafael Nadal will forever be compared as tennis rivals, Dixon does not view Power in the same manner.
“(There’s) not a set rivalry, it’s always the guy you’re competing with at the time. I think it’s more team based,” reflects Dixon, who will pilot a Honda-powered Dallara Sunday. “We benchmark ourselves off Penske. They are a helluva team with a fantastic driver lineup and the same goes for Andretti.”
Dixon says the new season brings a big change for drivers as they acclimate to the "aeroscreen" safety cockpit design meant to shield them from flying debris. A fierce competitor, Dixon would relish another swim in Belle Isle’s fountain if he can win again here in Detroit.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever jumped in a fountain,” he laughed. “It was a lot colder than I expected, but when you’re winning, man, who cares!”
But the race that animates him like no other — a universal feeling among his peers — is the Indianapolis 500.
“Indy is like nothing else. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Super Bowls, World Cups, all the great events around the world,” said the Kiwi. “But to get almost 400,000 people in one place — the atmosphere is crazy.”
The road racing talent who won his first racing title as a 14-year old on the other side of the world, is now the dean of IndyCar drivers.
“I never really got (oval racing) until I drove it. And then I thought, ‘Wow, this is so tough, and so technical.’ It’s crazy, man, living life on the edge at 250 mph.”
IndyCar Series highlights
Opener: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix
Race 1: 3 p.m. Saturday, May 30
Race 2: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 31
TV: Both on NBC
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.