Scott Dixon scored his 6th Indy Car championship title late last month, finishing 3rd at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg behind championship rival Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden who won the race and McLaren’s Pato O’Ward who finished second. It was a difficult race for Scott who had to gain ground on a slippery track after qualifying in 11th and keep pace with Newgarden who started 8th. There was quite a bit of action throughout the race with Scott having to dodge numerous crashes that occurred around him and use his judgment to know when to pass and when to avoid trouble. But as usual his superlative speed and experience made the difference.
You were on hand for the race, standing in the Ganassi Racing pit area. Was it as tense a race in-person as it appeared to be on TV?
SJ – It was definitely a tense race, full of action, and typical of the drama that most Indycar races have. It had all the ingredients for an exciting finish with both Scott and Josef qualifying relatively far back. As Josef moved forward, Scott had to follow to protect himself from any mishaps, it was absolutely nerve wracking to watch from the pitlane! In the end, both Scott and Newgarden showed why it was those two that were fighting for the Championship, with a display of great race craft when it mattered the most.
JT – Scott’s sixth championship moves him to second for number of titles won in Indy Car behind only A.J Foyt who scored seven. His 50 wins, including the Indy 500 in 2008, rank him third all-time behind Mario Andretti with 52 and Foyt with 67. He won four times during this year, taking three victories in a row to begin the pandemic-altered season. Amazingly, over the course of his 335 races, he has finished in the top ten 243 times. And he’s the first IndyCar champion age 40 or older since Nigel Mansell in 1993.
He also finished second in the Indy 500, scored a third overall victory at the Daytona 24 Hours in January with Wayne Taylor Racing and won last month’s Petit Le Mans with the same team. After the final race at St. Petersburg, Autoweek Magazine asked Mario Andretti if Scott is among the best racers in history.
“Absolutely,” Mario said. “You look at his record of championships and wins, and we are absolutely in good company. I love the guy, I love what he stands for. He’s definitely one of the best ever.”
It’s clear that since he first stepped into an Indy Lights car at Sebring, broke the track record and joined your Johansson Motorsport Indy Lights team, he has grown into one of the best drivers ever and is still at the top of his game. His talent, skill and judgment on and off-track are exceptional. And his desire to be the best every time he sits down in a racing car seems to burn as bright as ever.
Do you agree that his achievements should be more widely recognized?
SJ – Yes, I agree most definitely. It’s a shame that Indy Car doesn’t get more recognition in general because it definitely deserves it on several levels. It’s great racing, ultra-competitive with a huge depth of talent in the field now and that’s on display every weekend. It is the most competitive Championship in the world without a doubt.
I think it’s the hardest category of any to string together a whole weekend and actually win a race. You can be on pole in Indy Car but that doesn’t mean you’re going to walk away from everyone else once the race is underway. There are so many more layers to winning a race and it’s extraordinary what Scott has done for so many years. Any slight glitch in the strategy both on fuel and tires, pitstops, in and out laps, traffic etc, and you’re likely to lose several positions. Everyone in the team has to execute perfectly throughout the weekend in order to have a good result. The pitcrew is under massive pressure with only one guy per corner, a second lost under a full course yellow pitstop could mean 4-5 places when everyone stops at the same time. Scott’s pitcrew has been amazing, led by his crew chief Blair Julian, who came with Scott from New Zealand as a kid and worked in my Indylights team as a mechanic on Scott’s car, and the two of them have never been separated since. It’s an incredible relationship those two have had over the years.
If you think about all the different aspects of what makes a winning championship run in Indy Car, especially now, it’s impressive. It’s virtually impossible to get a mechanical or technical advantage. On almost every weekend, there’s never one car that dominates. At one race the Penske’s are out front, and not necessarily all of them, maybe only one of the Penske’s, the next weekend it’s one or maybe two of the Andretti cars and then it’s the same with Ganassi and sometimes Rahal. And there are so many good drivers, but in the end, the championship is typically decided by what driver is the most consistent and makes the least amount of mistakes. There is simply no room for mistakes if you want to win the Indycar Championship.
Most often when you see someone rack up big numbers of championships, wins or podiums it’s when you’re in a category where you can have a car that is completely dominant for a fairly long period of time. If you take Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher for instance, I don’t think anyone can dispute that they are or were the best at what they do at the given time that they’re doing it. But unlike Scott, they had the luxury of only having to beat their teammate or maybe one other car in a good year. In a really great year, they might have to beat four or five cars at the most.
But that almost never happens in F1. It’s rare that there are three cars that could win a given race. It’s the same in Sportscar racing, and has been for a very long time now, where one of the Manufactures totally dominate until they decide to pull out.
So, to answer your question, I definitely think Scott belongs in that very exclusive group of drivers that only come around every so often, drivers that maybe have a few percent more raw talent than their competitors, but a relentless drive to always be the best and to find ways to always improve themselves both mentally and physically.
JT – Scott has demonstrated an amazing desire to win and be competitive every weekend in Indy Car now for 19 years and counting. Many other drivers burn brightly but come and go much more quickly. Scott still has the passion he had two decades ago coupled with the diverse set of skills you need to win in Indy Car, mastering racing on natural terrain road courses, street circuits and short and long ovals. And as you point out, he’s willing to race other types of cars outside of the Indy Car series.
SJ – Scott is always keen to do any other race he can, he has a passion for the sport that is impressive considering the success he’s already had. He’s raced and won in IMSA DPi’s, DPs and other prototypes and the Ford GT GTLM cars. We’re always talking about what other drives are out there that doesn’t conflict with his main program.
He’s just a pure racer through and through, he’s won in everything he’s ever driven pretty much. His dedication to his craft is unheard of. There’s never any attitude or anything. He goes to Bathurst and he just gets on with the racing (Scott raced at the 12 Hours of Bathurst in February co-driving with Jake Dennis and Rick Kelly in an Aston Martin Vantage GT3, finishing 9th).
It’s refreshing because that’s how the great drivers used to be back in the day. They’d race three different cars on the same weekend sometimes. He reminds me a lot of Stirling Moss in that way, he could drive the wheels of anything, and he did with grace and dignity, both in victory and defeat. Encouragingly, I think some of the drivers coming along in the new generation are more like that again. Some of the younger guys like Lando Norris are keen to jump in and try different kinds of racing. Obviously, Fernando Alonso has no problem doing that. He has raced at Indy and in sports cars and off-road. So, I think the purity of racing is starting to come back and I really like that.
I think that all of the racing some of the guys have done on simulators recently has helped them realize that there might be categories outside of F1 for example, that can give them a lot more pure pleasure in racing and driving. Everything in Formula 1 is so optimized on every level that it kind of takes away a lot of the challenging elements of racing, things which any driver worth his salt craves. The cars are amazing and the technology is mind blowing, but as a result of that, a lot of the driver input becomes less important.
If you love racing, you’d want to go somewhere like the Nurburgring or Indianapolis because it’s an incredible challenge. You know it’s going to punish you if you screw up but at the same time to get it right and to master it is incredibly satisfying. I think any driver has that feeling when you’ve done something that requires you to dig a bit deeper than your comfort zone allows you.
JT – Meanwhile, Felix Rosenquist who teamed with Scott again this year at Ganassi also had a good season, scoring his first Indy Car win at Road America and finishing 11th in the championship. But his third season in Indy Car will be with a different team. Next year, he’ll race with the new Arrow McLaren SP team that had its maiden full season campaign in 2020.
Felix, who you also manage, is another driver with a diverse background, having competed and won in Formula E, DTM, Super Formula, Super GT and the Blancpain GT Series. His pairing with Pato O’Ward, who finished 4th in the Indy Car standings this season, should be fun to watch.
SJ – Yes, it’s a new challenge for Felix with a new team. A number circumstances dictated the switch to McLaren, but I think it’s going to be a great environment for Felix. They’re a strong team already, and yet they’re a bit of an underdog and he likes that. But the team is definitely on its way. They’ve improved massively this year.
With the influence of the F1 resources that they have and the ability to refine the few technical bits you can on an Indy Car, they should be even more competitive. I think it will be a good step for Felix. With Pato, the team will have two young guys who can push each other hard.
JT – Turning to Formula 1, the course of the season has been clear once again since it began. Mercedes has been utterly dominant, winning 11 of the 13 races contested so far with Hamilton taking nine victories to Valtteri Bottas’ two. Mercedes clinched the manufacturers’ championship at Imola and Lewis Hamilton will undoubtedly capture his seventh title. There remains little to watch racing-wise in F1 unless foul weather or some other unforeseen circumstance intervenes.
SJ – It’s a weird dynamic. I’ve tried the best I can to be positive about F1 but it’s tough when it’s so certain that one team, one car is going to win. The series is making little technical tweaks here and there but they’re not going to fix the problem. I keep saying it but it’s blatantly obvious to me that they need to start completely fresh with a new formula. The obsession with aerodynamics and the money invested in this area has been counterproductive.
If they’re so concerned with F1’s DNA and each team building its own car – all that does is lead to astronomical costs, as everything is so optimized and expensive to develop. And in the end, everyone ends up building basically the same car anyway. When someone gets an edge like Mercedes has had for so long now they’re just going to dominate. The factors that prevent anyone from having a shot at winning need to be eliminated, at least to the extent that there’s the slightest chance that the teams in the midfield can have a chance of winning on a good day. But, it is also clear that despite the car being the best in the field, if it weren’t for Lewis Hamilton there would have definitely been more races won by Red Bull, so in many ways it’s Lewis who in the end does make the difference even for Mercedes. They have the best overall package and Lewis is a huge part of that of course.
JT – Drives in F1 for 2021 are still not completely decided with seats at Haas F1, Williams and possibly Red Bull Racing up for grabs. What do you make of the driver market?
SJ – Red Bull seems to be supportive of Alex Albon still. They haven’t replaced him with [Pierre] Gasly which is the pattern Red Bull has demonstrated before. But who knows? I think it’s tough for anyone, especially a young guy like Albon to be Verstappen’s teammate.
I think you need someone with a bit of experience who might rattle Max’s cage a bit, not just on the track but mentally as well. Verstappen’s in charge, he’s massively quick and he delivers every race as true team leader does. It would take quite a high caliber driver to succeed alongside him. In my opinion Red Bull would be better off running someone solid and experienced with Max who can just keep scoring points to help the team. And if Verstappen has a bad day that driver can step up and get a podium or a win if the car is good enough.
Williams has the same challenge any team has in F1 these days. You set the ship in motion and take a direction. If it doesn’t work out it takes about three years to turn the ship around. The team management and direction is a massive undertaking these days. I don’t know anything about the new owners (American investment firm, Dorilton Capital) and I guess any restructuring will have to play out. And the drivers look like they’re staying.
Haas looks like they will go with two rookies for next year, which makes sense in a way, why not try some new fresh blood when what you have is clearly not bringing them further up the grid. If they can save the money spent on drivers salaries and allocate that towards car development instead, it makes sense to run a couple of rookies until you get to a point where you have car that will bring you to the front of the mid pack at least, then a fast and experienced driver could make the difference in how many points the team will score over the season.
Force India or Aston Martin as it’s called has pretty strong resources now with the group that Lawrence [Stroll] has assembled. I think we’ll see more and more influence from Mercedes. Vettel will relish a new environment there to work in, the smaller team atmosphere. It’ll be some fresh air for him to get in a new environment. He’s obviously not as bad as his results have been lately. Clearly this year the Ferrari has been built around Leclerc as he’s the new leader in the team. From what I understand he likes and can drive a car that is quite pointy and nervous on corner entry. If you don’t like that, if it’s not your driving style, you’re basically screwed as soon as you turn the steering wheel.
That’s how it was with Michael (Schumacher) at Ferrari. No one else could drive the car the way he liked it. If you can drive a car that is always on the edge of being loose, that’s always the quickest way. But the car has a very small window in which it works so it’s easy to overdrive it. And that’s often what happens when you’re a little bit behind the car. You end up trying too hard, overdriving and by doing so you’re actually going slower. This is the battle Vettel is facing right now and it’s very tough to pull it together when you have a car that doesn’t suit your natural driving style.
JT – While 2020 has been tough on everyone, you’ve put your time at home during the pandemic to good use, painting in your studio a lot and coming up with new Stefan Johansson products.
SJ – Yes, I’ve been extremely busy here in the studio, painting almost every day and we’re starting to commercialize some of the art, especially the abstract paintings. I had no intention of doing that when I started, but the style of the art lends itself very well to those types of products.
All those paintings are inspired by my memories of racing on different tracks over the years, the images are something I think of when I think back to racing at a certain track. Every one of the paintings is named after a corner or section of different grand prix circuits.
We started making some face masks based of one of the paintings for fun really but we’re actually selling a lot of them. We’re now doing hats, skateboards, surfboards and a whole range of other clothing items that will be launched gradually over the next 6 months.
And we’re doing prints of the original paintings in three different sizes which have been extremely popular. We’re branding it all around the abstract art. It’s colorful and eye catching. I’m quite chuffed that it’s been so well received.
I enjoy it all but the portraits I do separately are more serious art. There’s quite a lot of effort in terms of the research I do before I even start to paint them as the text I overlay once the subject is painted is really what brings meaning to the work. The whole process is quite time consuming. It takes almost a month to do one portrait. I like all of them for various reasons but I just did one – a “Lucha Libre” portrait of Lewis Hamilton where he’s wearing a Mexican wrestling mask painted in his helmet colors. It’s fun and different and I want to do more of that concept. I just finished one of James Dean and one of Steve McQueen. They’re all meaningful to me and I hope they will cause some level of emotion in my viewers too. I sell all the art on my website and so far the response has been very positive.