There aren’t many hills left to climb for Scott Dixon.
By nearly any measure, the New Zealand native is one of the greatest drivers ever to sit behind the wheel of an Indy Car. Only two drivers — A.J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) — have more race victories than Dixon’s 51, and his six series points championships are second only to Foyt’s seven.
Dixon will start Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 from the pole position for the fourth time, tied for second all-time behind Rick Mears (6).
But Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not been exceedingly kind to the 40-year-old star. He added his image to the Borg Werner Trophy in 2008, but good fortune has often eluded Dixon at the world’s most famous racetrack.
He’s finished in the top five six times and has three runner-up finishes — none more frustrating than 2020. After winning the first three races of the pandemic-altered season, Dixon was consistently the fastest car in practice for the Indy 500 and started second in the 33-car field. He dominated on race day, taking the lead on the opening lap and remaining out front for 111 of the event’s 200 circuits.
But Takuma Sato made a late pass and held on to win, with the final five laps being run under caution. All three of Dixon’s second-place finishes in the 500 have come under a yellow flag, with no chance for him to make a late charge.
If the experience has left Dixon bitter, however, he does a terrific job of masking it.
“I can tell you (second place is) the worst spot to finish,” he said. “Last year was frustrating. Again, this place owes me nothing. We got to keep knocking on that door, and hopefully one day again — one day soon — that opens up.”
Dixon again is among the favorites to win the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500, but there’s a new opponent looming on the horizon — Father Time. A youth movement is afoot in the NTT IndyCar Series. Four of the five race winners so far this season are 24 years old or younger, and three of them are first-time winners.
Dixon is the exception — winning the first race of a doubleheader weekend at Texas Motor Speedway on May 1 — and he’ll be joined on the front row Sunday by 21-year-old Colton Herta and 20-year-old Rinus VeeKay, the youngest driver ever to start in the top three places for the Indy 500. Herta won April 25 at St. Petersburg, Florida, and Veekay won the Indy Grand Prix on the IMS road course May 15.
It’s a stark representation of the ongoing generational battle in the series, with the highly successful veteran trying to hold off a pair of young guns. And it should make for good theatre in front of an expected 135,000 fans — the largest crowd for a sporting event since the novel coronavirus took over the world stage last year.
“It’s awesome,” Herta said. “I remember when I was eating Cheerios at 8 years old, and Scott Dixon was winning the Indy 500. Obviously for (2013 Indy 500 winner) Tony (Kanaan), his IndyCar start, we weren’t even born yet in 1998 when he was in CART.
“It is kind of crazy to see the guys you’re watching on TV you get to race against now. It’s incredible. Yeah, just can’t wait for Sunday, see what we can do.”
There are nine former Indy 500 champions in the field overall — led, of course, by Dixon. Kanaan starts fifth, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay (seventh), three-time winner Helio Castronevers (eighth), Alexander Rossi (10th), defending champion Sato (15th), Juan Pablo Montoya (24th), Simon Pagenaud (26th) and Will Power (32nd).
Recent history suggests the next winner will come from the first four rows which include three-time pole-sitter Ed Carpenter (fourth), season-opening race winner Alex Palou (sixth), rising Chip Ganassi Racing star Marcus Ericsson (ninth), 2017 series rookie of the year Ed Jones (11th) and Texas Race 2 winner Pato O’Ward (12th).
“This series is stacked,” said the 22-year-old O’Ward, who was the top finishing rookie in last year’s Indy 500. “I feel like it’s never been as competitive.”
There is a sense the youth movement could be stunted during the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Luck plays as big a role in determining the Indy 500 winner each year as skill, and experience helps drivers create their own luck.
The more laps a driver makes around the 2.5-mile oval, the more they come to expect the unexpected.
“I think there’s obviously a lot of talent in the field and a lot of new talent coming up and deserving race winners, but I think this place definitely pays tribute to the veterans that have experience,” Hunter-Reay said. “Not necessarily doing a fast lap, but over 500 miles and setting up for all those potential passes and things like that and putting yourself in a position for the fight at the end, I think that’s where the experience comes into play.
“But I have no doubt (the young drivers will) all be there very strong and challenging for the race win. We’ll see. That’s the great thing about IndyCar right now is you have no idea who’s going to win, right, any given weekend.”