Sometimes the race isn’t won on the final lap. Sometimes it’s won with 25 laps to go. And sometimes it’s won before the race begins. And sometimes it’s mostly won before the race begins, then finished off with 25 laps to go.
Such was the case for New Zealander Scott Dixon on Sunday, May 25, 2008, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the time, Dixon—who just claimed the pole position for the 2015 edition—was a 27-year-old standout who had captured the IndyCar Series championship in 2003 but had yet to win an Indy 500. (Dixon had also recently married a fetching Welsh track star. Which probably isn’t relevant. We just find it interesting.)
Driving for powerhouse squad Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon captured the pole position. And the race went about as smoothly as a race involving incredibly thin, light cars traveling 200-plus miles per hour can go. Leading most of the way, Dixon held off a late charge by Brazilian Vitor Meira to secure the victory by 1.75 seconds. He went on to claim the IndyCar Series championship that season, and he picked up his third Series championship in 2013, tied for second-most all-time. With the 2015 race taking place Sunday, the Kiwi they call The Iceman recalls how he captured auto racing’s most prestigious prize.
“You go to the Indy 500, you see all the pictures over the many years of people drinking the milk. So it’s kind of surreal when you’re actually the one doing it.”
How would you summarize your 2008 Indianapolis 500 victory?
Going into that race, out of ten practice days before qualifying, we were fastest in probably over half of them. Then we ended up winning the pole and we were quickest on Carb Day. You think with having all that consistency and being so fast as a team that, ultimately, something has to go wrong. But the race went perfectly too.
For me, especially after the last restart, you start hearing things. The engine is going to have a fault, you’re going to have a tire go down, some rotor issue—you start hearing things and vibrations. The hardest part was probably the last 20 or 30 laps. We had a great restart on the last restart, but you’re just thinking of the worst possible situation that can happen.
You heard things that made you think the car wasn’t going to make it?
Well, your senses come alive. You know you’re staring right at victory. You’re wondering if the engine’s going to have a problem, the gearbox. You start hearing and feeling vibrations that earlier in the race were the same, but your senses come alive to think that something’s going to go wrong.
Was there a key moment when the race was won?
It was in preparation to be honest. You know, we led… God, I want to say 142* laps of the 200. You know, the furthest we got back was maybe fourth. Every pit stop was good. The key was just maintaining the lead and being at the front of the race all day.
Sometimes red cars don’t just look faster: Dixon leads the pack in 2008.
We imagine that’s how sports work a lot of the time. As media, we try to make it seem like things are won on race day or game day, but quite often it’s due to preparation, and you win by all the work you’ve done before the actual event. Right?
Yeah, for sure. But don’t get me wrong. There are days when you win or lose on race day. Like, I think in 2011, we should’ve won the race. We messed up on the last pit stop exchange by not putting enough fuel in the car and I basically ran out of fuel with two or three laps to go.
But in racing in general, a strategy change or a restart can be the key too. The key moment at the end of the 2008 race was getting a really good jump on the last restart to break the slipstream from Vitor Meira, who was running in second. That’s where our race was really won. Our car was faster, but with a slipstream and drafting, you can catch up if you’re close enough. We were able to break that on the first lap of the restart.
How important was getting pole position?
Well, I think it’s sort of bragging rights. You know, the second most stressful day at the 500 is Pole Day. The cars are extremely light. It’s the toughest four laps that you have to do all year as far as qualifying. So I think it gives you a huge amount of confidence going into the race. But if you look, I think when [Dan] Wheldon won in ’11, he won from sixth. Dario [Franchitti] in 2012 won from 16th. [Ryan] Hunter-Reay won from 19th. It helps to be fast, but nowadays you can just about win from anywhere at the 500.
So how did it feel when you finally crossed the finish line and saw the checkered flag?
Once I knew the race was over and we’d won it, it was just a massive sense of relief. That was my fifth or sixth year of racing at the 500, and when you go with a team like Ganassi you’re expected to be one of the favorites, barring silly problems in the race. So you know you have the equipment, but in your mind, you’re like, ah, there have been many great drivers and teams that have come here over many years and never won.
Michael Andretti is a perfect example. He never got to win the Indianapolis 500. He’s obviously the guy that’s led the most laps around that place for someone who’s never won, and he probably should have won a couple of them. But you could be in that situation where you come close many times but are never able to get it. So I think that’s what plays in your mind. Then after you do get the victory, it’s just a massive sense of relief to say, “Man, we really did it.”
It’s the biggest race in the world. We’re on the short list of 65 or 66 people or whatever it is that have ever won the race. It feels amazingly special. But as soon as you win the race, you’re still in the car. The first thing you want to do is get back to the pits and obviously see my wife back there and then your family and the pit crew and all the people that made it possible. So it’s a long two-and-a-half miles back to the pits.
Remember what we said about “fetching”? Dixon celebrates with his wife, Emma Davies.
Is that the greatest moment in your racing career?
There are different races and scenarios and championships. Last year’s IndyCar Series championship was probably the best championship of my career, just for the fact that we were pretty much out of it midway through the season, and then we had two sort of slumps again after that. To come back and close the gap that we had to and go through the ups and downs to win it, it was by far the best championship. But the Indy 500, nothing compares to it. I’ve been lucky enough to go to World Cups, Olympic Games, all kinds of stuff, but nothing compares to the 500 for a one-day experience.
And I think everybody, when you’re in the team, just wants to win that race. So all the pressure is on that one race, the pit stop guys and the team strategy, getting it right. It’s very hard to get all those things right for a three-and-a-half-hour period. It’s very different from a championship where you’ve got time to regroup and make a comeback. Yeah, it’s definitely at the top of the list.
The Indianapolis 500 is the one where you drink the milk, right?
Yes, sir. [Laughs]
So how did that taste?
I could have been drinking anything at that point. But that’s the other cool part about Indy. You know, all the tradition. You go to that place, you see all the pictures over the many years of people doing those same things, so it’s kind of surreal when you’re actually the one doing it. You know, you get the wreath put on you, you get handed your milk, and you’re drinking it and you’re throwing it on yourself, and you realize you’re one of those people who’s going to be in one of those pictures. It’s a major blur. The race finished at maybe 3:30, and I didn’t get back to my motorhome after all the media stuff until probably 12:30 at night. It’s just a crazy, crazy night after that race.
We imagine your emotions are just totally spent.
Yeah, I slept pretty good that night.
You also kiss the bricks afterwards, right?
Yep. I kissed the bricks. I think it was actually Dale Jarrett who started that back in the mid-nineties. So it’s not an IndyCar tradition, but it was a NASCAR tradition that they now repeat.
Do you worry at all about putting your lips on what must be a very dirty surface?
[Laughs] No. I said if I ever get the chance to win it again, I’ll lick the bricks. So no, I don’t care. It’s kind of like with the milk, man. You could’ve been drinking anything at that point, it’s such a good feeling.
*Editor’s note: Dixon actually led 115 laps.