How Good is Scott Dixon?

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By John Oreovicz

Racing fans love to bench race, and there’s no more popular topic than “Greatest of All Time.” As Scott Dixon continues to rise through the record books, people naturally want to compare his achievements to the stars of Indy car racing who preceded him. Dixon’s statistics put him in heady company with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti and the Unser brothers, but some folks tend to be dismissive of drivers from the modern era given how radically different the sport is compared to 50 or 60 years ago.

Since he broke into Indy cars with PacWest Racing in the CART series in 2001 (more on that later), Dixon has amassed 49 race wins (third behind Foyt and Mario) and five series championships, second only to Foyt’s seven. The one “blemish” on Dixon’s record is the fact that he has won the Indianapolis 500 only once, but I think it’s ridiculous to measure a driver’s greatness based on their results in a single race. Is Dale Earnhardt’s legacy diminished because he went 1-for-23 in the Daytona 500?

Ten years ago, when Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500 for the second time, I wrote a column for ESPN assessing his place in the history of the sport. Dario went on to add a third victory in the 500, as well as completing a run of four IndyCar Series championships. In the modern era, which I define from 1979 on, only Franchitti, Al Unser Jr., and Rick Mears have claimed multiple Indianapolis wins and multiple Indy car championships.

To satisfy the “500” loyalists, I devised a formula that awards 10 points for an Indianapolis win, 5 points for an Indy car season championship, and one point for winning a race outside Indianapolis. Here’s how the top 15 shake out:

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I don’t think that anyone would argue that Foyt stands head and shoulders above all other Indy car drivers in many respects, including statistically. But it’s interesting to see how the rest of the top ten compares, and certainly utilizing this formula, Dixon’s accomplishments during his career measure favorably with the sport’s all-time best.

Another way of looking at greatness is how dominant a driver is over his competition at the time. Doug Nye recently wrote an interesting feature with this theme in MotorSport magazine. Instead of analyzing by decade, Nye traced a path from Juan Manuel Fangio to Lewis Hamilton based on technical eras not necessarily defined by years. The torch was handed from one driver to another as the cars and the sport changed, from Fangio to Jim Clark to Jackie Stewart to Niki Lauda and on down the line.

In Indy cars, you’d have to say that Foyt set the standard in the first half of the 1960s, but Mario was the man to beat in the latter part of the decade. Al Unser was the most regular winner in the 1970s before Rick Mears stormed onto the scene. We can only speculate what kind of career numbers Mears would have racked up had he not hurt his feet so badly at Sanair Speedway in 1984.

Michael Andretti emerged as the dominant driver of the late 1980s and early 90s, but when the CART/IRL split occurred, things got muddy. Alex Zanardi enjoyed a crushing three-year run in CART, while Sam Hornish was hard to beat in the IRL from 2001-06. When the two open-wheel series merged in 2008, Franchitti became the standard setter. And since Dario’s forced retirement at the end of 2013, Dixon has notched up three IndyCar Series titles and is acknowledged as the sport’s top gun. Josef Newgarden (25 points using the above formula) currently plays the role of heir apparent.

Here’s another measure of Dixon’s greatness: he’s won Indy car races over sixteen consecutive years. Foyt’s longest streak was seven years; Mario put together a pair of six-year runs from 1965-70 and 1983-88. Michael Andretti had a nine-year streak, but only if you exclude his Formula 1 sabbatical year. Dixon hasn’t had a winless season since 2004.

It’s a shame that Scott doesn’t get the recognition and respect he deserves because he’s truly a great guy. I got to know him in 1999 when he arrived in America as an 18-year old to contest Indy Lights for Stefan Johansson’s team. At the time, one of my outlets was New Zealand Speed Sport magazine, and my chief responsibility was covering Dixon’s American career.

In 2000, Scott was signed to a long-term contract by PacWest Racing. Some of you may remember that I was the public relations representative for PacWest in 1997 and ’98 and I was lucky enough to remain a friend and honorary team member. Led by the late John Anderson, there were some truly great people associated with PacWest, giving Dixon a solid platform to develop his skills and move up the ladder.

Dixon and the late Tony Renna formed a strong driver lineup for the PacWest Indy Lights effort, which was managed by Paul ‘Ziggy’ Harcus, who has gone on to lead multiple Indianapolis 500-winning efforts for Andretti Autosport. Dixon won six races and the 2000 Indy Lights championship, which earned him a promotion to PacWest’s CART team in 2001.

PacWest entered Indy car racing full-time in 1994, and by 1997 it was winning races with Mark Blundell and Mauricio Gugelmin. But Mercedes-Benz introduced a new engine in 1998 that was unreliable and uncompetitive, and the team’s loyalty to that program led to three frustrating winless campaigns. PacWest lost its Motorola sponsorship, but regrouped to run the 2001 CART season with Gugelmin and Dixon and Toyota engines.

Gugelmin was the perfect mentor for Dixon and the young driver took full advantage. Even as a rookie, Dixon had an uncanny ability to manage a race, whether through taking care of his tires or stretching his fuel. At Nazareth Speedway in his third Indy car start, Dixon triumphed over a charging Kenny Bräck to become the sport’s youngest winner at the time (20 years, 9 months).

Dixon’s drives at Milwaukee (third place) and Road America (another podium after multiple pit stops to replace his Reynard’s rear wing) demonstrated Dixon’s potential, and he was praised by two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran after their race-long duel at Laguna Seca.

PacWest essentially folded at the end of 2001, and after three starts in early 2002 for PWR Championship Racing, Toyota facilitated Dixon’s move to Chip Ganassi’s organization. The rest is history, with Dixon racking up race wins and championships while working with no fewer than 20 teammates over the years. Chip Ganassi loves to say, “I like winners,” and he certainly found one in Dixon.

As mentioned earlier, you can’t compare eras. But I’d like to think Scott Dixon would have been a champion in any era. He’s won Indy car races and championships in five distinct eras of Indy car design or philosophy: 1. A 2.65-liter turbo V-8 to CART specs; 2. IRL Dallara formula, 2003 to 2011; 3. DW12 era, 2012-14; 4. High downforce “aero kit” era, 2015-17; 5. Low downforce “universal aero” era, 2018 to the present. And he doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

Drivers don’t compete into their 50s the way Foyt, Mario and the Unsers did. But even if Dixon keeps at it to age 45, he is likely to pass Mario on the win list and could match Foyt’s tally of championships. Fit and motivated as ever, Dixon’s best days could still be ahead.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dixon’s early career, my book “Time Flies: The History of PacWest Racing” will be available later this month.

Oreo

9 Responses to “How Good is Scott Dixon?”

  1. News flash…..The 500 will not have fans for the first time ever and Roberto Moreno just turned in this lap?? 🤔🤷‍♂️

    • John was kind enough to send me this on Monday afternoon, and I loaded it up on Monday night to drop in this morning. This has never been a “breaking news” site. I’ll have plenty to say about this on my scheduled return on Friday. This time lapse is not on Mr. Oreovicz, whatsoever – It’s on me. I am very grateful he stepped in for me, while I’ve had so much going on. – GP

  2. Nat Krieger Says:

    The one thing about Dixon, and his family that truly is the mark of greatness is the care and compassion. They showed to Holly Wheldon and her family in the aftermath of Dan Wheldon’s death. IIRC the Dixon family temporarily moved to be with and support the Wheldons. Dixon is a great driver but a better man..

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I agree Dixon is Among the greats. But he will never reach the staus of Foyt and Mario, or the Unsers. Why in my opinion era hes in is safe and just has not drove on all type of tracks and cars.

  4. One statistic that is constantly overlooked (but shouldn’t be) is that AJ Foyt won SIX of the ten Hoosier Hundreds in the 1960s! Dixon could never do that, nor could anyone else; the next closest is Al Unser’s four in a row (from 1970-‘73). I don’t think Dixon ever drove dirt cars now, did he? If one is yammering about Dixon being a great INDYCAR driver I would agree, and he’s my favorite current driver. But gimme a break man, as an overall race driver he is no AJ Foyt, or even Mario. I find it silly to even try to compare any modern day driver to those two, especially when IndyCar drivers don’t do the dirt (thank you Roger Penske) of stock cars. Just not a real comparison at all.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Dixon’s ability to remain a race winner and title contender for so long is remarkable, he really has few peers across motorsports when it comes to longevity. If one were to knock him for anything, it would be that Franchitti regularly beat him when they were teammates… but Dario is pretty much the only teammate who ever beat him with any regularity and Dario is an all-time great as well.

    Dixon has been criticized by some for being bland… which makes me wonder what people said about Al Unser back when he answered every question with a drawling “Oh, I dunno”.

  6. Scott Dixon is the least-appreciated legend in American sports.

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