Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Dixon on elusive second win: 'This place owes me nothing'

Scott Dixon won his fourth pole for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and will attempt to win the race for just the second time. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS -- Every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gasoline Alley looks and feels like the world's coolest high school cafeteria, a sociological hierarchy that is visibly obvious to anyone lucky enough to stroll these most hallowed of motorsports grounds.

The freshmen -- or in this case, rookies -- travel in packs, saying yes to whatever is asked of them, overwhelmed and for the most part simply happy to be there. The upperclassmen have what look like party people always lounging around the entrance to their garage stalls, laughing at every joke and just waiting on the next good time to start.

But it's the seniors, the living legends, who are the easiest to spot and the most difficult to get to, because they are always in a crowd, constantly surrounded by gawkers and hangers-on. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, even unassuming Rick Mears -- Indy's racing royalty -- all hold court like the grease-monkey godfathers that they are. Those who stand closest to them do so via invitation only. It is the coolest of all cool kids' tables. For a racer to receive the "Why don't you come over and here and talk to me?" hand motion from A.J., Mario or Rocket Rick is to be anointed in the drips of that cool. It is validation as one of them.

Scott Dixon no longer is simply being asked to sit with the legends. He has his own throne. Which brings us to the beauty of the man and the racer, the very force that still motivates him to chase the edge of the envelope even at a point in life where he could rest on his laurels and cruise into retirement.

He still doesn't believe he's worthy.

"To be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys, it's just crazy," Dixon, 40, said the day after securing his fourth career Indy 500 pole position with a four-lap average speed of 231.685 mph and edging youngster Colton Herta by .030 mph. "I will be at an event or in the paddock and A.J. or Mario or Rick will call me over to chat and I instinctively do that thing where you look around and behind you, like, 'Oh, is he really talking to me? Do they know that I'm just Scott Dixon?'"

He hasn't been "just Scott Dixon" since 2003, when he first arrived in Speedway, Indiana, as one of those wide-eyed Indy 500 rookies, a quiet New Zealander who had tested for Formula One teams but hadn't landed a gig and "settled" for an American open wheel ride. He had won one Champ Car race, a fuel strategy victory for PacWest -- a team that soon went belly up -- at Nazareth Speedway, a racetrack that was about to be shuttered, and one IndyCar race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That was it. Then he finished 13th in his Indianapolis debut. No one in the 500 Club was inviting that guy to any middle tables.

"What makes Scott so amazing is that in so many ways he still sees himself as that guy, even now," Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan said Thursday. "But what he has done has been to become one of the best there's ever been."

Kanaan, the owner of 17 IndyCar wins, including the 2013 Indy 500, cracks a huge smile. "I think sometimes we have to work too hard to remind Scott of that."

In the 18 years since his Indy 500 debut, Dixon has won 49 more times, including the 2008 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. His 51 total open wheel victories rank third all time behind only Foyt's 67 and Andretti's 52. He has won at least one race in 19 consecutive seasons, breaking Foyt's record of 18. He also has added six IndyCar championships, one shy of Foyt's record that most believed was unapproachable.

A victory in Sunday's 105th Indianapolis 500 would tie Andretti's career IndyCar win total and further cement Dixon, already the 2021 championship points leader, as the favorite to tie Foyt's championship mark. He will make that attempt from the pole position, his fourth, which tied Foyt and three others for second all time, two behind Mears' six. If he leads 82 laps Sunday, he will leapfrog Al Unser Sr. to become the Indy 500's all-time leader in laps led (644). That's plenty doable. He led 111 laps in the 2020 race, in the process jumping past Andretti (556) and Foyt (555) on that same list.

Dixon has reached that point in his career where every stat compiled means yet another climb up the rungs of yet another page of the IndyCar record book. But for all the two- and three-digit numbers he might rack up, it's the smallest of those that in the minds of many would get him over the top as a true Indianapolis demigod.

That would be the number two. As in, finally joining the list of multi-time 500 champions by earning an elusive second Indy 500 victory to go with his "only" win in 2008.

"Yeah, 'only' win, that's how you say it, right, mate?" he replies, laughing. "Let me tell you about this racetrack. This place owes me nothing. It doesn't owe anything to anyone. So, it is no exaggeration to say that every single time I walk beneath that Gasoline Alley sign, I am thankful for that. Just as I will be thankful for it on Sunday."

From others, such statements might come off as boring. But everything Dixon says is entirely too genuine to be shrugged off as athlete speak. When he says Indianapolis Motor Speedway owes him nothing, he means it, whether he is discussing his near-fatal airborne crash in 2017 or his three runner-up finishes. The last of those came in the last 500 run, the Aug. 23, 2020, pandemic-delayed and fanless race that he dominated (111 of 200 laps led) but lost under caution when race officials decided not to red flag the event with four laps remaining and give him a shot at passing the fuel-starved car of race winner Takuma Sato.

In fact, all three of his second-place finishes have come under the crawling speed of a no-passes-allowed yellow flag. And all three times, Dixon stood on the pit lane and took his lumps in front of the TV cameras, as gracious and magnanimous as a heartbroken man can be.

"Am I a 'what if?' guy? No," he said. "But I wouldn't be truthful if I told you that I didn't replay all of the scenarios in my mind for a little while after each of those races, especially last year. But all I can do is turn that into a learning experience and perhaps some motivation to hone our focus in the next race run and in the championship battle after that."

For the record, he won the very next race run after last August's 500 loss, defeating Sato at Gateway Motorsports Park, just as he did after his second runner-up run in 2012, winning at Belle Isle, and again over the man who'd bested him at Indy, Dario Franchitti. He didn't follow up his '07 second place behind Franchitti with a win the next week, but did win the 500 one year later.

"So ..." he sighs and then chuckles, "that's my positive spin I'm going to put on finishing second at Indianapolis and doing it under the yellow every time. Are you buying it?"

No. Maybe. Who knows? But everyone is buying what the Scott Dixon IndyCar legacy really is, no matter if he ever earns a second silver face on the Borg-Warner Trophy or not. He is the greatest open wheel racer of his generation. Everyone agrees on that, even the greatest drivers of the generations that preceded him.

Well, OK, almost everyone.

"No one goes racing to chase statistics or records," Dixon says. "When we take the green flag on Sunday, we are all chasing the same thing. We want to win the biggest race in the world. Yes, I have done it once. But 2008 is a long time ago. All it did was make me want to win it again. And if I do it again, I'll just want to chase a third win. When I am done, it will be up to others to determine how well I did in my career. Right now, it is still up to me."