Full Speed Ahead
August 25, 2014
As a three-time IndyCar Series champion and a winner of the Indianapolis 500, Scott Dixon would likely have been a household name across the United States in any other era of motor sport.
During the 1990s the Champ Car/Indy Car World Series was one of the sport's main attractions. The prominent players - drivers such as Nigel Mansell, Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya - were legitimate stars on both sides of the Atlantic, following on from US greats such as AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser.
But a high-profile split in the series, a less notable merger and financial difficulties have drained the series of its lustre in the eyes of many. Both in the States, where NASCAR is now king, and Europe, where Formula 1 rules, IndyCar racing does not enjoy the status it once did.
But it is still the pinnacle of open wheel racing in North America. The quality of the field is not lacking, while the drivers compete on twisty street circuits, wide-open road courses, short ovals and terrifyingly-fast superspeedways.
Dixon, speaking in the week after a fourth-placed finish at the famed Milwaukee Mile oval, points out that IndyCar racing offers an all-around challenge that no other series can match.
“I think that’s what makes IndyCar racing unique, that you have different disciplines with the road and street courses, superspeedways and short tracks,” the New Zealander told Sky Sports.
He added: “I like them all, I like the difference. I’d say physically and mentally, Milwaukee is probably the toughest that we come across – Richmond used to be very similar back in the day.
“You have such high downforce compared to Indianapolis, where you probably have a half or a third of the grip you have at Milwaukee. They’re very different tracks but short tracks are a lot of fun.
“It can be a long and horrible day if you have a bad car but it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a good one.”
Aiming to Improve
Despite coming from the back of the grid to win in Mid-Ohio three weeks ago, defending champion Dixon is set to lose his title this year, paying the price for a poor start to the season when his Chip Ganassi Racing team was well off the pace.
Ganassi Racing and Penske are the two teams most associated with IndyCar racing but both have expanded their other motor sport projects recently.
Dixon believes shifting the focus away from IndyCar may have cost his team at the start of 2014, but is confident Ganassi’s resources have not been permanently directed away from open wheel racing.
He said: “The development will change, the development was a little delayed for us this year.
“The team had a lot of other projects with their NASCAR (team) and there was also a huge shift in the sportscar programme – changing the engine manufacturer and doing a lot of two-car races.
“That consumed a lot of the IndyCar project and now that’s running freely and well on its own I think that will change the perspective and focus for next year. With the way we started this year and ran for the majority of it, I think it will put a fire under a lot of people’s bums.”
For all the talk of a decline following the split of Champ Car and IndyCar in the mid-1990s and then the bankruptcy of the former series in 2003, the Indy 500 and a small number of other races are still shown on national television in the United States.
"I think once the two series split in ‘95 and ‘96 there was tremendous damage done. It’s just kind of been on repair from that point on."
Dixon on open wheel racing in the US
The remaining races are shown on the NBC Sports Network, a cable channel which is set to become a lot more prominent due to its addition of NASCAR races to the 2015 schedule.
“I think once the two series split in ‘95 and ‘96 there was tremendous damage done. It’s just kind of been on repair from that point on,” Dixon said.
“I wasn’t there in the glory days of the late ‘90s and early 2000s when it was very strong, (before) it went through another transition.
"I think the merger in 2008 (of Champ Car and IndyCar) was a huge help. Right now the thing that is (helping) the growing side of it is definitely TV package, which I think is taking a huge step next year.
“It’s on the upward swing it’s just in small increments right now.”
The 34-year-old has spent almost his entire career racing in America but is not yet seriously contemplating a switch away from IndyCar.
“I love IndyCar and I love the sport of motor racing in general. I think the general transition (would be) maybe into sportscars after IndyCar.
"I think Dario helped a lot of the competitors by running well until his 40s. Then you’ve got Helio (Castroneves) and TK (Tony Kanaan) who turn 40 this year, so I like to think I’ve got six or seven years left of doing this.”