Scott Dixon visited the ESPN campus Wednesday for a car wash, the process where an athlete or celebrity is put on TV and radio, visits with digital media, and makes any other rounds asked.
Fresh off his fourth IndyCar Series title, the native of New Zealand sat down with ESPN.com Motorsports editor K. Lee Davis for 24 minutes to discuss IndyCar, his boss, other racing and more between his stints on SportsCenter and ESPNRadio. Here is that entire conversation.
K. Lee Davis: You recently signed a new deal. Would this be your last contract, or do you envision yourself racing IndyCar beyond it?
Scott Dixon: I think it's always a tough question, that one. I think IndyCar, or motor racing in general, to look one year in the future is hard enough, to understand where everything is going personally. But yeah, the longevity, I think, as a driver is quite a personal thing, whether you're feeling it and one day you just wake up and feel, "You know, I think I've had enough and I'm happy with what I've achieved." When that day comes I'm not sure, but what is helping now, I think, is there are fierce competitors out there -- Juan [Pablo Montoya] turns 41 this year, TK [Tony Kanaan] turns 41, Helio [Castroneves] turns 41 -- so there's a lot of great drivers that are still rockin', and they are five or six years older. I'd like to say I can make it to 40, but we'll have to wait and see.
KLD: You're 35. We did a story about where the IndyCar paddock stands, with veterans such as yourself and a crop of younger drivers on the rise. Where do you think the strength of the series lies when it comes to drivers?
SD: I think you covered it right there. You've got the veterans who have won multiple championships, multiple [Indy] 500s, and then you've got the other end of the spectrum where you've got someone like Sage [Karam] coming in at 20. He's American, he's a very likable person, he's very spontaneous; I think he brings a totally different demographic to IndyCar. So I think obviously you always have the past and the future. With the current drivers, hopefully I'm a little bit below the past, but I think motor racing is tough to break in as a rookie or a young person because of testing protocols. When I first entered CART back in the day, I had 50 or 60 days of testing. Right now, we have 10. So it makes it very difficult for these young people to come through. Right now, I think it's covered on both levels, the past and the future.
KLD: Karam pointed out he's just starting out this year and he looks at somebody like Josef Newgarden, who is in his fourth year, and that's what Karam thinks he needs -- four years in the car to really get acclimated. Is it that difficult now to get up to speed in IndyCar?
SD: It is. I think the problem now is technology changes, but the car doesn't develop so quickly. Back when I was starting, every year you would get a new car and every two weeks you would get a new update. You were constantly learning driving styles and ways to manipulate it. It's like anything. To get close is one thing, but to get the last 2-3-4-10ths is very tough. Even for myself, it took awhile to find that spot, that compatibility. It's about what you feel and how comfortable you are on track. It's always a combination, but even now I think it takes longer, because again, there's so little testing.
KLD: Something you alluded to earlier: NASCAR is going through a transition with Jeff Gordon retiring and one of your Target teammates, Kyle Larson, helping to lead the youth movement. In Formula One, it almost seems like you're washed up at 30, but IndyCar for generations has been a welcoming spot for drivers even approaching their 50s. Why is that?
SD: NASCAR probably has a longer life cycle, and when you look at the IndyCar side of it, that's changed a little. Looking at the people you're probably talking about, you've got [A.J.] Foyt, you've got Mario Andretti, even Michael [Andretti], Little Al [Unser], Big Al [Unser]. That was a totally different generation, too. It's scaled back a little now. But even Formula One is coming back a little, too. [Kimi] Raikonnen just re-signed, and he's one of the older ones. [Jenson] Button at 35, 36, which is kind of on the end of the scale. I think they face similar problems that the testing schedule doesn't allow a lot of these young people coming through. It's a cycle. But I think for branding, marketability, you still need well-known names on one scale, and then obviously the newcomers.
SD: Ooohhh ... Dan and TK are pretty much on par, man. TK, it's funny ... like Dan, you know was a very funny guy but also a very serious guy, especially in debriefs, whereas TK, I sit across from him every weekend and it's like a little caricature sitting over there, bouncing around ... you hear the strangest noises coming from that side of the table. And his impersonations of so many people are just hilarious. But Dan, he was a very serious type, too. His attention to detail was better than anyone I ever knew. Dario, he's got a dry sense of humor, a little more refined, I'd guess you would say.
KLD: What changes would you like to see in the next generation of Indy car?
SD: I don't think you want to change it too much. I think what we have, the product is very good. The issue, I guess you could say now, is getting people to tune in to see it. When they see it, they love it. The racing is fierce, the competition between the small teams and the big teams is very level. I think you can always work on a few different things. I think the aero kit, you could probably change a few things, take some stuff off the top side and get the underwing to work a bit better so the cars can follow closely. If you ask a driver, we always want more grip and more power. But that may not play out better for the show. I don't know. I think schedule-wise we could start [the season] earlier and run longer. I think overseas, racing overseas some would be much welcome for people like myself.
KLD: What makes team owner Chip Ganassi so successful?
SD: He's competitive, man. And when you don't win, he does not like that. And I think that's been a part of his personality since I first got there. It's his understanding, too, of finding the right people for the right job. Between himself, Steve Lauletta [Chip Ganassi Racing president] and Mike Hull [CGR managing director of INDYCAR], they're very good at finding the right people. As Chip said even at the [end-banquet, he's maybe done some of those jobs, but he doesn't do them now. His goal is to find the best people that can do those jobs. I think what inspires as a team -- even those little chats we have in prerace meetings -- is that you're very lucky to get to do what we do as a team. We very privileged, we have great partners, we have great sponsors. You have to go out there and give it your all. You don't always see that from the person that owns a team. He's very hands-on.
KLD: What are those meetings like with Chip when things aren't going so well?
SD: A little awkward. I've been in a meeting and it's like, "Dixon, you and your engineer are coming with me." And then you kind of have your other meeting where you're told to sort it out ... pull your finger [out] if you need to -- probably not in those words. I think he's very fair, but he demands a lot.
KLD: Did you ever think one of your championships would get Chip to crowd surf?
SD: I did not! I did not think I would see that. I was backstage doing some interviews when that happened, and I was like, "No way." And he comes around the corner and he's like, "Dixon, you gotta crowd surf, I was just crowd surfing." ... I've seen the videos, you have to see the videos. He definitely did it wrong. He went facedown, and when I went out I asked him if he'd gone front or back, and he's like, "No, you gotta go front ways." That was a bad move. A little awkward.
KLD: Hands in the wrong place?
KLD: What does the change from Derrick Walker as the president of operations and competition of IndyCar to whoever replaces him mean for the sport, and what are the qualities that would make someone right for that job?
SD: It's a really tough one. I think Derrick, he did a good job. It's so hard to find the right person, and I think they need to separate his job, because he tried to do race control and operations and oversee a little too much. It's got to be an amazingly stressful job. Derrick I think was a fitting person, and definitely one I think was eligible for the job, but whether he decided to leave or IndyCar decided they needed to change things up, I'm not sure. I think obviously for the drivers, you need to be clear and cut on the direction. And you need to step out of the limelight, too. You need to be away from it. [Decisions] need to be worded as "INDYCAR has decided to do this, INDYCAR has decided to do that." You need step out of it almost, and you're going to have to be a bad guy, you know. That's a very tough thing for some people to have to do. That person is probably going to have to be someone who is in the racing community. He was friends with a lot of these people, and to make that separation was quite tough. You have to have no fear, you have to be genuine and you have to stick to your guns.
KLD: There's a famous meme out there of Will Power's double-finger salute to race control at New Hampshire ...
KLD: ... and that the fans will pop that up every time there's a controversy in IndyCar. I've seen it for NASCAR, Formula One and even MotoGP. It's gone worldwide. Is there any way to make everyone happy when it comes to that race-control job?
SD: Absolutely not, and you have to know that going in. I can't imagine how many directions you have coming at you, but that's what it takes. I'm interested to see what they bring in for next year.
KLD: You've said you're not going to be racing for Chip in Le Mans next year, but how much would you like to do that and what would it mean for your career?
SD: Uhh, I don't think I said I wouldn't be, I think I said it's unlikely just for the sheer fact that it's a new program, Ford is very much embedded, and some of it is obviously schedules, too. The other situation, too, is that you don't want to take a driver who has not been to Le Mans before -- you don't get many testing laps -- and I would almost be holding the program back to get my time in the car. I would definitely welcome the opportunity, but I think the first year is a very demanding time on the team and what they need to focus on and what they need to get out of it. I kind of see it as an unlikely situation ... are they running one car? Two cars? Maybe that opens something up.
KLD: How intently do you watch it when it comes on?
SD: I watch all forms of motor racing, whether it's midgets, dirt track, motorbikes, obviously the NASCAR team in Xfinity and Sprint Cup, and the sports car stuff. We're very embedded, you know, it's based in Indy and we run the 24 Hours [of Daytona] here and I'll do Petite Le Mans this year in early October. So yeah, I watch. I watch it all, man.
KLD: Form of racing doesn't matter, two wheels or four ...
SD: Four! ...
KLD: ... which would you like to do that you haven't?
SD: I don't think I'd last that long on two wheels, that's the problem. ... It's a feeling thing, too. I've owned road bikes, you know, Ducati. I've recently become good friends with [Supercross and Motocross champion] Ryan Dungey, and he's like, "You know you want to come do this," and I'm like, "I would absolutely break something within the first 10 minutes on my own body." So, I think right now GRC, Global Rally Cross, because we have an in-house team as well. And then Le Mans and Bathurst are ones I'd like to check off the list.
KLD: Given the inherent dangers in the sport, when you strap into the car and get ready to roll off, do you ever wonder what your wife, Emma, is thinking? Have you ever talked about it?
SD: You see it, you see -- you know in any sport, there's lots of highs and lows, right? -- lots of emotions, and Emma is probably one of the most emotional people I know. You see video [of her] when you win a race or when an accident happens and you see the reactions -- and it's much similar for my mother, too -- you see the pacing and the nervousness. Will Power's wife, you know, chews plastic bottles to disintegration ... so, yeah, you know, we chat a little bit about that, but not a lot. I don't think she wants me to worry about that while I'm out there. And most drivers are very selfish, too. Once you put the helmet on, once the car starts, it's totally black-and-white and you're focused in a different direction. You're not taking in much of what's going on outside apart from what you're doing. I feel with the tragedies we've just seen [Justin Wilson's death], Dan [Wheldon] in the past and Tony Renna, you know you see the emotions and these families almost live through our lives. It's tough. We're selfish in the fact that we go out and do what we love to do and live a very blessed life. And I feel very fortunate, but it's very tough on the families, man. Very tough.
KLD: New Zealand's Prime Minister tweeted out congratulations, he held you up as New Zealander making a splash on the world stage. Not too many people get their nation's leader to call them out as a great example for their country. What's that like?
SD: Yeah, it's kind of crazy. I think with social media, it's almost like no rules. Previously, when I won the 500, you would get an official letter sent to you from the Prime Minister, but with Twitter and Instagram, things have definitely changed. It's kind of cool to have that kind of interaction. I think that's why social media platforms have exploded, you know, you can chat to people like that. It was nice to fire up a quick reply and thank him. Those are the cool things.
KLD: You've got four titles and an Indy 500 victory, what's left on you racing bucket list?
SD: More 500 titles. This year I think we thought we had a really great shot until 30 laps to go and the engine overheated. We were pretty much a sitting duck, and that's not to take anything away from [what] Juan accomplished -- he drove an amazing race, and for someone to win two 500s in three starts is an amazing stat. More 500s. It's a one-off race, the atmosphere, I'll never forget 2008 and I hope to get another one. You know for me, coming from the Southern Hemisphere and Australasia, Bathurst is a race I grew up watching since I was probably 6 or 7 years old, so that's one. Winning it is one thing, but just to compete in it, I think's another. And also Le Mans, because of its notoriety.
KLD: We write stories about Team Penske's focus on the Indy 500, but we don't seem to write that about Chip, and Chip has won a lot of them himself. Why doesn't Ganassi get the same kind of credit?
SD: Yeah, I don't know what the stat is, but when you're Roger [Penske] and you've won 16 or something, and Chip's at five ... if you look at scale over the years, you have a 20-year addition there on the Penske side. I don't know ... 15 or 16 Indy 500s; right there, that's a crazy stat.
KLD: You're the two big rivals in the garage right now, Penske and Ganassi. And you mentioned other teams, even the smaller teams, are competitive. You guys know each other, you've raced together. Montoya's raced for Chip, now he races for Roger, what is that like? You spend so much time with these guys, but they're on the other team.
SD: Obviously Juan is the unique one because I've been on both sides, right? I've been a teammate of his and now he's a competitor. I'm sure the teams are run somewhat different. Obviously the goals are the same. Roger is always very polite. Bud Denker [executive vice president of Penske Automotive Group and Penske Racing] I like. Tim [Cindric, president of Penske Racing] is always very nice to talk to. And you get into heated battles, too. Roger I've chatted with a lot more recently, because I think he's bought all the trucking companies in New Zealand and Australia ...
KLD: He does that sort of thing.
SD: ... Yeah, right! He's been spending a lot of time in New Zealand just recently. I think it's a friendly battle, but it's very fierce. Both of them [Ganassi and Penske] want to beat each other as much as they can. It's important to have that. That's what these sports dynasties are made of, man.
KLD: So you have a blister at the base of your thumb, did that come from this weekend?
SD: Yeah, which is unusual ...
KLD: I remember at Houston in Champ Car at Reliant Park, Robert Doornbos got big blisters on both hands the first race there. What's the roughest circuit you've run?
SD: Yeah, Houston was one of the roughest ... Baltimore. Houston, Baltimore ... and what was another one? ... those two, I would say, and Brazil was a bad one. Even though it was new pavement, it was not like new pavement.
KLD: What else?
SD: The Verizon IndyCar Series, man, I love being a part of it. I think it's still my passion, how great the series is, what a great product we have. We need to get it out there more.