Scott Dixon’s life is filled with an increasing amount of important numbers.
In his 20th year with Chip Ganassi Racing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary, the New Zealander will turn 40. The Kiwi has seen his family increase with the recent addition of his third child with wife Emma, and the same is true for his IndyCar team, which expanded from two cars to three during the offseason with the arrival of Marcus Ericsson.
And the five-time IndyCar Series champion, who earned the quartet of titles with three race engineers, is ready to pursue a sixth with his fourth, Michael Cannon. For good measure, Dixon is also looking to improve upon a rare number that landed in 2019 as he finished fourth in the championship. For only the second time since 2007, the 2008 Indy 500 winner placed outside the top three in points, which represents little more than an aberration in an otherwise impeccable record.
Still, fourth in the standings for team owner Chip Ganassi may as well be last for the notoriously dissatisfied team owner. Despite earning two wins, a remarkable six second-place finishes, and landing on the podium in 10 of 17 races, two Team Penske drivers and one from Andretti Autosport got the better of CGR’s title contender.
Unwilling to go forward without changes, Ganassi promoted Dixon’s race engineer Chris Simmons to a new performance oversight role and drafted in Cannon from Dale Coyne Racing to fill Simmons’ former position.
Quick in pre-season testing, the elevation of Simmons and acquisition of Cannon, along with moving in members of the former Ford CGR IMSA GT program to bolster the IndyCar outfit, has brought added strength to the squad.
With the NFL equivalent of having a new offensive coordinator in place for 2020, plus the former coordinator continuing to work closely with the star quarterback, Dixon is hoping the numbers add up in the team’s favor.
“The shake-up for us, and I say ‘shake-up’ as in we didn’t really lose anybody, we just had a ton more people back onto the program, and the expansion to the third car, has been really good,” he told RACER.
“The addition of Cannon, the addition of the sports car guys – the IMSA engineering group as well – has been big for us. We were really, for the last two or three years, in a tough situation for personnel at the engineering level when other teams were adding more and more people to carry the load. What we’ve got now is the best I’ve seen for a good few years with our team as far as depth and capable people.”
Through the weather-affected Spring Training test in Texas and last week’s run in Florida, Dixon has kept his eye on the personality differences and chemistry changes in the engineering group on the No. 9 car helmed by crew chief Blair Julian. So far, he’s pleased with the results, and if he’s contenting for a sixth championship by the end of the season, the shake up will be cited as a key factor in the change of fortunes.
“Everybody’s working really well together,” he said. “I think with the structure change with Simmons and Mike Cannon and Cannon learning with [race strategist] Mike Hull, and all those guys working a little bit differently as together, has been really good. It’s been really positive. Mike, we haven’t got to run too much together, but I like his demeanor. I like his calmness. It’s different than Chris.
“Chris is really good in other ways too, but having them both on the stand at the moment – I don’t know how long that will last for, but at least for this year – having both of them on the stand, it’s been fun to come into the pits and not have people scrambling, trying to get through the processes we need to without having enough people. The way it’s been working now, it’s been good, man. We get info in from the other cars, decide on what we might or might not try, and get on with our program. It’s been really positive.”
As a team that prides itself in stability on the shop floor and engineering offices, the offseason adjustments on Dixon’s car are a bit of a rarity for CGR.
Despite being one of IndyCar’s most metronomic drivers, Dixon isn’t necessarily a fan of maintaining continuity for comfort’s sake. Late in his career, at a time some of his older rivals might be averse to change, Dixon doesn’t mind having to go through the process of learning to work with a heavily-revised engineering lineup.
“We’ve done it before, and even when it was with Eric Bretzman and Chris, and then I had it with Julian Robertson and Bretzman in the earlier days,” he said. “The other teams have moved around people, and we’ve typically only moved around assistant engineers. But changes like for this year keeps it fresh, and is quite good because it brings up a totally different kind of conversation.
“It’s very easy to just get stuck in the repetitiveness. And if you get stuck in it, you’re stuck, and then Chris and I get angry over the doing the same thing. I’ve been pushing for it for the last couple of years; just getting some fresh ideas, and not blaming anything or putting blame on anybody, but just wanting to try some change.”
In the case of Cannon, who has worked at some of IndyCar’s biggest and smallest teams over the last 20 years, Dixon found the Canadian’s mindset and curiosities opened new lines of thinking that were both unexpected and welcome.
“When Cannon came in, it was a great example,” he said. “He’s like, ‘Wow…’ He loves the amount of resources that we have, but you also still get running down this rabbit hole where you’re chasing this one direction.
“And it was nice to have a different perspective on things. Also, you realize how there are no small teams anymore because even the amount of money that Dale Coyne would spend on things, that we wouldn’t even do, because we’d be like, ‘That just doesn’t make sense,’ like weight-saving stuff in doing whole car kits of titanium bolts, we were just like, ‘That’s really expensive and we’ve never really done it.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, we did it.’
“So, you get a different perspective on where teams spend their monies and processes. And so, it’s been interesting from that side, even with [Ericsson’s engineer] Brad Goldberg and the Ford GT group coming over in different areas that they’ve been rolling down, working closely with Michelin, it’s opening up some ideas with the program with Firestone. You get running down these different ways of working and thinking, and it’s nice.”
With the majority of the IMSA team integrated into the IndyCar operation, a new driver to factor in, plus changes and promotions on the engineering side, Dixon says there’s a lot to process as the new season gets under way. All of the different ideas and working styles, along with data from three cars to absorb, is a lot to digest. Part of Dixon’s strategy in chasing that sixth championship will involve both embracing and distancing himself from the overwhelming volumes of information.
Sometimes, leaving the numbers behind and simply driving will be the best strategy of all.
“And for me, it’s fantastic because I don’t have to change too much, personally, in the fact that there’s just so much more information and so many more interesting things to try and grab onto that everything becomes new again,” he said. “Even talking to Felix, even after only one full season, he’s like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting stuff to try.’ And it’s good to have all these conversations and all this data, but I don’t know if it’s always in your best interest to stay plugged into it.
“The problem is there’s just so much information now which you try and process, but nowadays on a race weekend, it’s just insane. Between all the video, between all the data, and more cars, and all the options to consider, and the simulation, I guess it’s the same for everybody, but there’s just a shit-ton of information these days. You’ve got to know when it becomes too much and when to shut it off and just drive, man.”