Scott Dixon, IndyCar’s Iceman in the crucible of competition at 200 miles per hour, climbed to the next level in a metric that measures its greatest drivers Saturday with a victory in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
It was the 39th win for the New Zealander, tying him for fourth on the all-time list with Al Unser. Just ahead is Michael Andretti with 42 and at age 35, it’s possible Dixon can pass him this year. Mario Andretti’s 52 isn’t beyond Dixon’s reach, either, depending upon how many more years he decides to race. Only A.J. Foyt’s 67 seems untouchable. But we used to say that about Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs before Hank Aaron hit 755.
Like Aaron, Dixon has crept up in the record book with his consistency. His win at the demanding one-mile oval was accomplished in his classic, unspectacular style. He hammers the opposition with speed and smoothness. Dixon has wins in 12 straight seasons, the IndyCar record. He shows no signs of slowing down.
Helio Castroneves started on pole and led the opening 39 laps before a right-front tire went down and sent him limping to the pits. Penske Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya inherited the front and led the next 56 laps before his right front tire went flat, too. Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who finished second, and Will Power, who was third, both said the problem was a cut tire, meaning it had run over something. Maybe. The thought here is Castroneves and Montoya were too aggressive in preparing their Chevrolets and the demands put in the right front were too severe.
Dixon had started sixth in his Target Chip Ganassi Chevrolet and was second behind Montoya after a round of yellow-flag pit stops on lap 52. Dixon kept Montoya in striking range. Montoya surrendered the lead and Dixon led the final 155 laps. Pagenaud never challenged him once for the lead.
But don’t tell Dixon it was a cakewalk, and it wasn’t. He just makes it look like it is.
“It was definitely a tough fight out there, probably one of the toughest short ovals I can think of in recent history, just how you had to manage the tires, fuel-mileage strategy,” Dixon said. “For me, a lot of credit goes to the team. Strategy was perfect. The pit stops were just amazing and the setup was fantastic on the car. But, yeah, it was really tough.”
Dixon is in his 15th season with team owner Chip Ganassi, who undoubtedly appreciates Dixon being a team player. But Ganassi also knows that it’s the driver who is the difference between winning and losing. “The driver,” Ganassi once said, “is the guy who pushes the buttons.”
It was Dixon who superbly managed the tires at Phoenix.
“You could run flat out, you could pass cars if you needed to, but you didn’t want to be doing it all the time because it definitely took a toll on the tires,” Dixon said.
The revival at Phoenix
IndyCar hadn’t raced at Phoenix since 2005. It was one of the critical events on the schedule for the series to rebuild the sport that was so damaged by the infamous “split” which began with the establishment of the Indy Racing League in 1996 and CART followed by the Champ Car World Series continuing to try to operate without the Indy 500---the foundation of Indy car racing. CART and then Champ Car went bankrupt in early 2008 and IndyCar emerged as the sole operating body.
Phoenix was a victim of the war from diminished fan support and a tradition of great racing and sizeable and enthusiastic crowds was lost. Under USAC, CART and IndyCar sanction, the track held events from 1964 to 2005 with an illustrious group of winners—Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock.
IndyCar desperately needs more successful venues and a successful revival at Phoenix would link its proud, historic past with the future.
“I thought the crowd was pretty good,” Michael Andretti, who owns a team that has full-season IndyCar entries with Ryan Hunter-Reay, son Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and rookie Alexander Rossi. “I think we were at least half full, which was pretty good because NASCAR (Sprint Cup) doesn’t even sell out here. It was very respectable. It was a good start.
“Everybody loves coming here and it’s a part of our history. I’m hoping it stays on the schedule for a long time. I think they did a really good job promoting it. They didn’t have much time to get ready for it because it was announced really late (October, 2015). I think they did a really good job considering the time they had to promote it.”
Dixon had raced at Phoenix from 2003 to 2005.
“It’s fantastic, obviously, to be back at Phoenix,” he said. “I’m excited to come back next year.”
IndyCar’s next event is April 15-17 with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, America’s most successful road or street course event and a marquee in the series. It began in 1975 with Formula 5000, was a Formula 1 World Championship event from 1976 to 1983 and CART began racing in it in 1984. IndyCar made it part of its schedule in 2009 following Champ Car’s demise.
Dixon won last year at Long Beach by 2.2 seconds over runner-up Castroneves. It launched his fourth IndyCar championship season.