Sunday, October 12, 2003 Updated: October 15, 7:58 PM ET
Dixon strong from the start
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
FORT WORTH -- Eight months ago nobody listed Scott Dixon as one of the favorites for the Indy Racing League title, but it wasn't because he didn't have supreme ability and confidence or his Target/Ganassi Racing team lacked anything.
Dixon wasn't on many people's radar due to the fact he was a road racer from Championship Auto Racing Teams who honestly didn't want to be in an all-oval track series.
And his engineer, Julian Robertson, had spent his entire career in CART and, other than the Indianapolis 500, had no experience with IRL chassis.
"Yeah, I had mixed emotions. I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do," admitted Dixon after securing the '03 IRL championship Sunday afternoon with a second-place drive.
"But I always had fun on ovals and I like the technical tracks like Homestead, Phoenix and Nazareth. Yeah, it's all oval tracks but there are some very accomplished road racers in this series and it was a good battle all year."
Despite his initial reluctance, Dixon delivered another open-wheel title for Target/Ganassi Racing (four-time CART champs) on the strength of his skill and maturity and Chip Ganassi's talented team.
The 22-year-old New Zealander piled up 507 points with three wins, five runner-up finishes, five pole positions and by leading a series-high 748 laps in his G-Force/Toyota.
"We were consistently fast just about every place and my crew gets a lot of credit," said Dixon, who became the youngest winner in CART history in 2001 when he triumphed at Nazareth, Pa., at age 19.
Dixon won three races this season.
"Winning the first race of the year (Homestead) helped our confidence because our car wasn't even that good."
Robertson, an unassuming Englishman who came from Formula One to Dick Simon Racing in the late '80s and then joined Ganassi in 1993, said their success can be credited to a number of things.
"You want to run these cars as neutral as possible and we got up to speed pretty quick thanks to Mitch Davis and Mark Paxton because they ran Jeff Ward for Chip in the IRL last year," said Robertson, who engineered Jimmy Vasser's CART crown in 1996.
"I didn't know anything about ovals when I came to the United States but I learned a lot from Dick (Simon), Morris (Nunn) and last year from Kenny (Brack). There's also a lot of experience and smarts on this team and it shows in our results."
Mike Hull, the team manager for Ganassi for more than a decade, gave a tip of the hat to Dixon's teammate, Tomas Scheckter, who is departing for Panther Racing in 2004.
"Tomas was a big part of our success this year because he's a great teammate and totally unselfish," said Hull. "He tested and always went as fast as he could and was totally honest with Scott. He deserves a lot of credit.
"And that's the strength of this team. We do everything together and everybody checks their egos at the door."
Well, maybe except for owner Ganassi, who can be a bit pompous at times. But the former CART driver from Pittsburgh does have a knack for picking people and drivers. When Dixon's ride with PacWest evaporated six races into the 2002 CART season, Ganassi snapped him up.
"We've got great management on this team, great engineers and great drivers," said Ganassi. "We've had flamboyant drivers in the past and, let's face it, that's not a word you would use for Scott.
"He's got a great sense of humor but he's all business when he's out on the track. These race drivers today have a lot of people tugging at their arms and spinning in their ears and it takes quite a special person to keep that all in proper perspective and do the job behind the wheel.
"Scott is that guy."
Stefan Johansson, an accomplished F1 and CART driver who now owns a two-car team in CART, has been Dixon's manager/advisor since the Kiwi tested for him at age 17. His goal is to get Dixon into F1.
"He is so mature for 22 and he's got so much experience because he started so young," said Johansson. "Guys like Scott only come around every 10 to 15 years and he's smart and hungry and always figures out a way to beat people.
"The bottom line is that he's a champion."
Johansson says there is plenty of F1 interest in Dixon and his latest title (his sixth in the past 10 years going back to Formula Vee, Formula Ford, Formula Holden and Indy Lights) won't hurt his profile.
"Any championship should help," said Dixon. "I know those F1 guys pay attention because Rubens (Barrichello) told me he watches and thinks we're crazy. It's definitely what I want to do some day."
But next year he'll be back to defend his IRL championship.
"He wasn't real keen on the IRL last winter," said Robertson. "But I think he likes it a lot better now."
Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.