Matured Dixon would relish second title more than the first

DETROIT -- When Scott Dixon arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2003, he was not only young, but very aggressive.

At the time, he began the season as the 22-year-old and was an extremely aggressive driver -- almost too aggressive.

At Twin-Ring Motegi in Japan, he was racing furiously with Tony Kanaan before the two drivers slammed hard into the wall in Turn 2. Dixon was uninjured but Kanaan suffered a badly fractured arm in the crash and was airlifted to a hospital.

Kanaan returned home the next day, seated in the front row of First Class on an ANA airline wearing a cast that looked as if it were made from an Erector set with an Indy Racing League physician at his side to tend to him during the 16-hour flight to Washington's Dulles Airport.

Kanaan would not miss any races, but was still wounded when he qualified his car for the outside of the front row for the Indianapolis 500.

Dixon turned 23 midway through the 2003 season and went on to win one of the tightest IndyCar Series points races in history, with five drivers eligible to win the title entering the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway.

Today, Kanaan said he believes there are few drivers on the track that he trusts more than Dixon, who at 27 has developed into one of the smoothest, most consistent drivers in the series.

"Scott and I had a big problem in 2003 and I think Scott now understands the mentality with these cars," Kanaan said. "When you come from road courses and race in Europe -- although he has been here for quite a bit, we all raced in Europe -- there is no mercy. People bang wheels no matter what and don't say anything. Scott had that kind of mentality.

"After the incident in Motegi with me, I respect him as a champion and I respect him as a driver and because of that we both earned a lot of respect for each other. Right now he's the guy I would run side-by-side any time at any racetrack. He gives you enough room; he will respect you. He understands the mentality."

It's that calm demeanor and smooth racing style that has New Zealand's Dixon four points ahead of Scotland's Dario Franchitti entering Sunday's Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the next-to-last race of the IndyCar Series season.

Older -- but still young -- and certainly wiser, Dixon admits he's much different than he was in 2003.

At that time, he was the "reluctant driver" in the IndyCar Series. He had risen through the ranks of the rival CART Series, winning the Dayton Indy Lights title in 2000 with six victories in 12 races for PacWest Racing.

That earned him a promotion to the CART Series, where in 2001 he became the youngest driver at that time ever to win a major open-wheel race at 20 years, 9 months and 14 days -- a record that has since been broken by Marco Andretti at Infineon Raceway in 2006 -- with a victory at Nazareth, Pa.

He began the 2002 season for PacWest, but by the time the season ended, he had moved over to Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, which was about to bolt CART for the rival Indy Racing League.

"It was a hard decision," Dixon admitted. "The only thing that made it an easy decision was coming over with the team that we did. It was tough for me because the Champ Car days and the teams that I was with in Champ Car, we didn't have a lot of great oval cars. Even though my first win came at Nazareth that totally came down to a fuel-mileage race. That was definitely something that bothered me when I moved.

"But to be honest, I didn't have a lot of great choices, not with a team of that stature so that made it easier to make the move."

Dixon won at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his IndyCar debut in 2003, when the series dramatically changed from the "Good Old IRL" of the 1996-2002 seasons to a league that looked more like CART, only with different series decals.

"[2003] was kind of strange," Dixon recalled. "It took us off guard coming in and winning the first race for a team first coming to the Indy Racing League and for myself coming to the IndyCar Series it was definitely something very different."

He would go on to win the IndyCar title by 18 points over Gil de Ferran when five drivers entered the season finale within 35 points of the lead. De Ferran had the longest odds, bringing up the rear 35 points back, but by winning the race and Dixon finishing second, the title went to the driver from Auckland, New Zealand.

Afterwards in the postrace media conference, Dixon criticized the cars in the series, saying they were "s---" to drive, that it was a matter of putting the foot down on the accelerator and turning left all the time.

It wasn't exactly the type of image that made him popular in the IRL offices.

"You have to choose your words wisely sometimes, but I think I was making a point that they needed to make some changes," Dixon said. "Now, if you get a good car, you are going to do well. They do seem more difficult to drive now with the tire and the combination than that first year we had here."

Dixon and Sam Hornish Jr. may be the two most sincere, honest drivers in the series. Ask them a question and they give a straight answer from the heart, not what may be the popular response.

Dixon's frankness has sometimes gotten him in trouble.

"That's how I feel, so I don't think it makes any difference," Dixon said. "On many occasions I've had Chip Ganassi call me and tell me I shouldn't have said things like that. I think it's the truth and there is no reason to really lie about it. I guess maybe you could not say things, but a lot of times there are moments where you are pissed off and of course you are going to say things."

Dixon's 2003 title was unusual. Although he had three victories that season (Homestead-Miami, Pikes Peak and Richmond) he had five DNFs, including three in the first four races.

When his car was in the garage being repaired after leading 52 laps at Nazareth, he admitted afterward that his title hopes were finished after a 16th-place finish. But he closed the season with three straight second-place finishes to win the title.

"I think that year we would have been consistent, but if you look at the 2003 season, we had five or six DNFs," Dixon recalled. "At that point in every one of those races we were leading or in the top three. That was the frustrating part of that."

Much has changed with Dixon, including his image and reputation. While drivers such as Kanaan and Franchitti say there isn't another driver on the track they feel more comfortable with racing side-by-side than Dixon, that certainly wasn't his rep when he won the title.

"That racing was definitely very different from anything I've been in before," Dixon said of the style in the IndyCar Series in 2003. "Champ Car on the oval you didn't have side-by-side stuff. Any bit of racetrack you could get over anybody else was a big advantage, so you had to take it. That taught a lot of bad habits coming to the Indy Racing League because the cars were so different to drive. You could drive side-by-side. That year I did learn a lot.

"Coming back in 2004 and 2005 I learned the most, respecting others and knowing sometimes you had to give a little to get a little back."

While he enjoyed his time as a champion following the 2003 season, it didn't last long before the reality of racing became apparent in a series that had multiple engine manufacturers at that time. While Toyota held the edge in 2003, Honda zoomed past its Japanese automotive rival in 2004 with Andretti Green Racing dominating the series and Kanaan winning the title.

Dixon sunk to 10th in points with a best finish of second at Phoenix.

It was even worse in 2005, when Toyota, which had already made its decision to leave IndyCar racing for NASCAR, pretty much surrendered to Honda without putting up much of a fight. Dixon finished 13th in the standings and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing was spitting out drivers over poor performances.

Darren Manning, Jacque Lazier and Ryan Briscoe were all let go because of a high number of crashes and lackluster results. Although Dixon had the team's only victory that season in open-wheel racing's return to Watkins Glen, he wasn't sure he would remain on the team.

"I think there were a lot of points, even through 2004, that I began to think that," Dixon admitted. "We had a contract through 2005, so going through that year you start to sweat a bit. It is hard, especially being on a team that is known for getting rid of a lot of drivers, it is hard to know where you stand. Seeing some of the other drivers go, it was quite abrupt and they didn't see anything coming.

"It was surprising to have stuck around on this team."

We had a contract through 2005, so going through that year you start to sweat a bit. It is hard, especially being on a team that is known for getting rid of a lot of drivers, it is hard to know where you stand. Seeing some of the other drivers go, it was quite abrupt and they didn't see anything coming. It was surprising to have stuck around on this team.

Scott Dixon

Perseverance may pay off this year if Dixon wins the title and becomes only the second driver in IndyCar Series history to win more than one championship. Hornish leads that category with three, while no other champion has more than one in the series.

The bad times taught Dixon some valuable lessons, however.

"I think in 2004 and 2005, I realized how special it was to even get a win in a series like this more so now because of the combination of cars with the engines and chassis," Dixon admitted. "You do respect a win a lot more and to even run up top.

"It was obvious when Dan Wheldon came to the team because he was off a good season and very aggressive and I was building myself back. The point that I changed was definitely '04 and part of '05."

With a series-high four victories this season, including Sunday's win at Infineon, Dixon is within two races of clinching a championship, one that he believes he will appreciate much more than his first title in 2003.

"I think this year would be definitely more rewarding," Dixon said. "A lot more different disciplines, more races, everybody has the same equipment. I would say in '03 we did have an advantage and the people that won the championship in '04 and '05 definitely had an advantage with the Honda. I think now everybody with equal equipment, it's more rewarding for a driver to win."

And Dixon may be one of the best things in the IndyCar Series for the simple fact he doesn't talk about leaving for different racing opportunities. With Hornish about to leave for NASCAR, Dario Franchitti possibly leaving for sports cars and other drivers such as Wheldon talking about their interest in NASCAR, Dixon is happy where he is.

"You have to be respectful. It's no good going around saying you want to go to NASCAR. For one, it's not good for the series and two; it's not good for the team you are with. I'm still under contract for a few years more and I'd have to say I'm happy doing what I'm doing, otherwise I'd move on."

The driver who was once the "reluctant competitor" in the IRL could prove to be one of its most appreciative champions if he closes out the 2007 season with his second title.

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.