The motor racing artist Roger Warrick drew a delightful cartoon heading into 2017’s IndyCar season finale at Sonoma Raceway.
Titled ‘Dixon & Dragons,’ it depicted the New Zealander locked in another championship battle, fighting off the fire-breathing, five-headed monster that was Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and team supremo Roger Penske. Team Penske’s Newgarden would go on to claim his first title that September weekend, but the plight of Warrick’s central character — of Dixon standing alone, pitted against an entire organization — was the most powerful message conveyed.
It also portrayed the situation IndyCar’s newly-minted champion would face this year — against stiffer opposition — from St. Petersburg through Sonoma.
Dixon’s fifth title came against the same powerhouse Team Penske outfit, sans Castroneves, and added a second team in Andretti Autosport with Alexander Rossi, plus late charger Ryan Hunter-Reay, as the flame-spitting rivals needing to be vanquished. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens was also regular thorn in his side through Round 13 at Mid-Ohio.
Altogether, Dixon was presented with imposing obstacles to overcome on his way to the championship, and greatest of all, it was produced as a solo act against IndyCar’s two biggest teams. With new Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Ed Jones still learning on the job as a promising sophomore, Dixon spent the season on an island.
From the standpoints of technical or professional growth, Dixon’s No. 9 Honda crew were on their own in the slugfest with Andretti and Penske. With average finishing positions of 4.2 and 13.2 for the two Ganassi drivers across 17 races, the numbers more than suggest Dixon and Jones spent most of the year in different area codes on track. And while Jones put in a number of strong performances, it was a rarity for the Dubai-born Briton to run up front and take meaningful points away from Dixon’s main protagonists.
Unlike Rossi with Hunter-Reay or Marco Andretti or Zach Veach, or all of the Penske drivers, Dixon lacked a wingman to ease the path toward a fifth championship. Fourth in the standings after the Indy 500, his one-man rally from June through September was unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era.
Dixon took some heat in 2015 when he won the title by capturing the victory at Sonoma and using the double points to draw even with championship-leader Juan Pablo Montoya. He’d leave with the crown by virtue of having more wins than the Colombian, and to some, Montoya was robbed. In 2018, Dixon wasn’t as fortunate. Penske’s Will Power won the Indy 500 and used those double points to propel himself to the top of the standings. Hunter-Reay then took the double helping of Sonoma points on Sunday, leaving Dixon to displace all of his adversaries though normal means.
After the 500, the Kiwi savaged the field with steadiness; in the ensuing 11 rounds, Dixon finished inside the top five 10 times. Ten top fives from 11 opportunities…it’s worth taking a moment to drink that in. It also included seven podiums, three victories, and Divine Intervention at Portland just to keep things interesting.
Dixon also avoided getting off to a slow start. It’s became such a frequent phenomenon, anything other than suffering from bad luck, mistakes, or general misfortune in the season’s opening frame would be considered strange. And yet, with the exception of Long Beach where he placed 11th, all of Dixon’s finishes from St. Pete through the 500 were inside the top six.
On a grander scale, subtract a comparatively bad day at Long Beach and his 12th late in the year at Iowa, and IndyCar’s new champion spent the remainder of the season — 15 races in total — inside the top six. All while acting as his own wingman.
The Ganassi team’s only routine struggles came in qualifying. Dixon was tasked with some serious overtaking to deliver those top sixes, and while he didn’t move forward at every race, when he did motor in the right direction, Dixon managed to improve 72 positions from where he started to where he finished in 2018. When the green flag waved, Dixon put in work.
And in a year where IndyCar went to a new universal aero kit that carved more than 1000 pounds of downforce from the car on road and street courses, the driver with the fastest hands and the greatest comfort dealing with a dancing chassis was in the hunt from the beginning, took control of the championship as the halfway point, and never looked back.
Consider all of the pressure he dealt with and deflected. All the passing. The crushing consistency, and who was toppled along the way.
At age 38, when some drivers start to find difficulty in summoning the vigor and rage of youth, Dixon made it look easy. Vast experience, fed by a deep well of burning intensity, felled all of the dragons he faced.
After Newgarden came away with the 2017 title, Warrick updated the drawing: Dixon was a pile of smoldering ash. This time around, once the visors went down, it was the Kiwi who torched the field all by himself.
Five championships, with none more impressive than the latest. How fortunate are we to witness one of the all-time greats at the top of his game?