Scott Dixon qualified a mediocre 18th for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but his rivals know better than to think the veteran racer will stay in the middle of the pack for long.
“He’s not a five-time champ for no reason,” pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud said of Dixon, who captured the fifth of his NTT IndyCar Series titles last year. “You expect him to be there” in the front, Pagenaud said.
Josef Newgarden, the Team Penske driver who qualified eighth for Sunday’s race, likewise said he expects to see Dixon approaching quickly in his rearview mirror at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dixon “knows he’s got to come through traffic,” Newgarden said.
If there’s a perennial favorite in the Indy 500, it’s Dixon, a calm New Zealander known as “The Iceman” who drives the No. 9 Honda-powered car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Dixon, 38, has the most wins of any active IndyCar driver, 44, one of which was the Indy 500 in 2008. In Dixon’s view, 11 years is long enough to go without kissing the Yard of Bricks a second time.
“I feel very lucky to have at least won it once,” Dixon said in an interview after he ran mid-pack again in Friday’s final practice session.
Tony Kanaan, who won the Indy 500 in 2013, ran the fastest lap of 225.517 mph as the field’s 33 drivers practiced for nearly 90 minutes following a Friday morning thundershower. He was followed by rookie Santino Ferrucci and Takuma Sato, the 2017 Indy 500 winner.
Kanaan marveled at the strength of this year’s field. “It’s the most competitive I’ve ever seen in my 18 years here,” said Kanaan, who’s driving for A.J. Foyt Racing.
Dixon said the strong field is one reason “it’s always been the hardest race to win.” But speaking of his Ganassi team, he said, “I don’t think we’ve done a superb job of late” preparing the fastest cars.
Dixon’s starting spot is the worst in his 16 previous appearances in the 500, but he knows how to patiently work his way to the front. In 2012, for instance, he finished second after starting 15th.
The Indy 500 has a unique lineup for the start, with 11 rows of cars lined up three abreast. Dixon will start in the sixth row with Kanaan and Graham Rahal.
“It’s myself, Graham and Dixon, and we’re in the middle of the pack, and I don’t think we’re going to stay there long,” Kanaan said.
Dixon’s steady disposition was on display two years ago when he was involved in a harrowing crash at the Indy 500.
Although “a little beaten up,” in his words, minutes later Dixon was calmly describing the accident to a television reporter as if he’d done nothing more than brush the wall.
Coincidentally, Dixon has been one of the drivers testing a new cockpit-protection device, dubbed the “aeroscreen,” that would deflect debris away from the driver.
The device would feature a clear, wraparound laminated screen anchored by a titanium framework, and IndyCar plans to place the device on its race cars next year. It’s being developed by Red Bull Advanced Technologies, a firm related to the Aston Martin Red Bull Formula One team.
A push to reduce head injuries has gained steam in IndyCar since August 2015, when Justin Wilson died from injuries sustained when the English driver was hit in the head by flying debris from another car at Pocono Raceway.