Scott Dixon, Bobby Unser two legends in different ways, now equal on wins

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One was – and still is – known for being one of the most candid, outspoken but iconic voices and drivers in North American open-wheel history.

The other is the “Iceman” – a guy who’s got it done, week-on-week, for 12 straight years, who’s a quiet, cerebral soul most of the time with a wicked and underrated sense of humor off-camera.

Now, they’re tied on career wins.

Sunday’s Sonoma triumph was Scott Dixon’s 35th of his career, dating to his first in the 2001 CART race at Nazareth. That ties him for fifth all-time with Bobby Unser, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and renowned commentator after his retirement from driving.

Unser, from his vacation home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, had this to say about Dixon:

“Scott Dixon is a very, very good driver and records are made to be broken,” he said. “I’ve been watching Scott race for years. I’ve been watching Scott since he started racing Indy cars when he was real young and he was successful almost immediately. He’s truly a great driver and drives with a lot of vigor.

“I am happy for Scott and at his young age I am sure he’ll get another win or lots to pass our 35 Indy car wins we now share together. Scott’s a racer, he truly knows how to drive a car, for sure. I just wish Chip would give him a stock car, sprinter or midget to race in, I am sure he’d win in those too. I am betting he’d win in anything he runs, if given the chance.”

Dixon, who’s told me in the past he’d be interested to try something on dirt, took an opportunity to reflect on being in the company of open-wheel’s Mount Rushmore of families: Foyt, Andretti, Unser and Mears.

“You know, as I’ve said before, I think stats are something you look back on when you are maybe leaving the car,” he said during the post-race press conference. “As I’ve said, hopefully you’re happy with them. To me it’s very eye-opening, pretty crazy to think that we’re on the short list last year with Unser, Andretti and Foyt ahead of us.

“But a lot of credit goes to the team I’ve been with. I’ve been with Ganassi for 13 years. To get all those victories, all but one of them have been with that team. With the longevity that I’ve had, it’s going to amount to hopefully something. Obviously respect those drivers from the past.  It’s something that I think I’ll reflect on probably when I’ve retired.”

Dixon’s deflecting the accolades for now, but we’re watching an all-time great who still has at least another four or five years in his prime.

Consider Unser was 34 when he won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968… and that’s Dixon’s age now.

The difference in eras is that Unser raced until he was 47; today’s stars rarely race much past 38 or 40.

But Dixon has a realistic shot to climb to at least third on the all-time win list, a mark currently held by Michael Andretti with 42 wins. Dixon needs seven wins to achieve that mark.

His next win will be his 36th, and move him into the middle of an Unser sandwich. Al Unser ranks fourth on the all-time wins list with 39, and a 40th win for Dixon would move him into fourth.

AJ Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 are, very likely, out of reach.

The only question about seven is that the level of domination by any one driver in IndyCar has gone down in recent years.

No single driver has won more than four races this season since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012; both times, that’s been the champion (Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, Dixon last year).

So Dixon could well get those wins, but it may take him some time. Either way, it’s hard not to appreciate what we’re seeing.

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”