Rossi taking pages from Dixon’s playbook

Image by Abbott/LAT

Rossi taking pages from Dixon’s playbook


Rossi taking pages from Dixon’s playbook


Scott Dixon’s playbook for IndyCar success has contained four main ingredients. On the way to his four championships, the 38-year-old has used an uncanny ability to check out and disappear from the field on the way to countless uncontested victories. He’s been the living standard for saving fuel while making immense speed — to the point where he can win with ease by making better mileage than his rivals.

Dixon has mastered the art of season-long point earnings, having placed fourth or better in the championship 13 times in 18 seasons. And it’s the New Zealander’s aptitude for absorption and adaptation that has taken him to the top of the sport.

The Kiwi has long been hailed as IndyCar’s great chameleon by team owner Chip Ganassi, race strategist Mike Hull, and race engineers Eric Bretzman and Chris Simmons. It stems from his capacity to import the unique skills found within his teammates and add them to his arsenal. Whether it was Dan Wheldon’s divine grasp of oval driving and chassis setups or Dario Franchitti’s meticulous approach to preparing for each race, Dixon’s gift for recognizing his weaknesses, no matter how small, and rapidly onboarding a teammate’s methodology has been the underlying key to his immense strength and longevity atop the series.

Those four ingredients came to mind on Sunday while watching Alexander Rossi spank the Verizon IndyCar Series field at Pocono. With only 2.5 years of experience in IndyCar’s world of multi-discipline racing, the American is already demonstrating the same championship-grade attributes that have made Dixon a perennial title contender.

Rossi dominated most of the race at Pocono. (Image by IMS Photo)

He went from a complete novice on the subject of fuel conservation at the start of the 2016 Indianapolis 500 to achieving miracles on the way to winning the centennial event — as a rookie — with little more than fumes left in the tank. In a car engineered by Jeremy Milless, he out-Dixon’d Dixon last year at Watkins Glen — a road course the Ganassi driver had owned — by beating him to pole and delivering an unflinching drive to victory under immense pressure from the man himself.

He led 71 of 85 laps from pole in April to win on the streets of Long Beach, and recently claimed victory at Mid-Ohio, Dixon’s best track, by starting from pole and buying into the crafty two-stop plan he cooked up with Andretti Autosport race strategist Rob Edwards. On Sunday in Pennsylvania, he almost lapped the entire field after starting third.

Sitting a few car lengths behind fourth-place Sebastien Bourdais and Dixon in third at the end, there’s no doubt Rossi could have lapped the championship leader if it would have reduced the 29-point gap he faces heading into the final three races of the year.

At road courses, street courses, and superspeedways, Rossi has proven to be one of the quickest learners IndyCar has seen. He’s only completed two seasons, and with zero oval knowledge to draw from at the outset, Rossi has finishes of 11th in 2016, seventh in 2017, and has slashed Dixon’s lead in half while holding second entering Saturday night’s event at Gateway. On the subject of consistency, he’s crossed the finish line fifth or better in nine of the 14 races held in 2018.

And it’s the fourth pillar, of opening himself to betterment by taking the finest skills from teammates to expedite his learning curve, where Rossi is really starting to look like Dixon’s doppelganger.

“Having never worked with Scott, anecdotally, we’ve all heard those things about becoming stronger from allowing himself to receive the influences from his teammates,” Andretti’s Edwards told RACER. “And having worked with Alex since he came to our team in 2016, he has, for sure, done the same thing. He’s very good at absorbing from teammates and all of the resources around him to be better.”

Using Rossi’s immense talent as the base, Edwards says Andretti teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, former full-timer Carlos Munoz, team veteran Marco Andretti, and even rookie Zach Veach have directly contributed to the Californian’s remarkable rise to title contender status.

Like Dixon, Rossi absorbs key skills from teammates like Ryan Hunter-Reay. (Image by Galstad/LAT)

“I think Ryan is someone he keyed off of the most in the beginning, and has done so with Carlos, Marco, and Zach,” he added. “They’ve helped to build a better model. And not every driver is open to a process as such. Some prefer to rely on themselves first and foremost, and I’ve only seen the opposite from Alex.”

Just over 200 points are on the table to earn between now and the double-points finale in Sonoma. What looked like a breakaway charge by Dixon following his mid-July win at Toronto has turned into being stalked and hunted by Andretti’s top performer. And from Edwards’ viewpoint, his driver has yet to reach his peak, which is a scary proposition.

“He had success here in Formula BMW, went to Europe, won in GP2 which is very hard, made it to Formula 1, even if it wasn’t with the best circumstances, to do that, you must have real talent to build from,” he said. “And it’s only grown since he’s come to IndyCar. He has a very quiet, in-built confidence that doesn’t come out, but inside, there’s a very strong belief in himself.

“At the same time, then you look at working with his teammates, making the tools in his armory stronger, and all of the top guys I’ve worked with in my career, they’ve had the same characteristics as Alex. It’s hard to not be impressed by where he is now, and where he’s headed.”