Photo: Wes Duenkel/Ford Performance

Scott Dixon reflects on Ford GT debut; looks ahead to Le Mans

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One of the greatest drivers of his generation added another piece of machinery to his resume this weekend, as Scott Dixon made his race debut in the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.

Dixon led 18 laps (from Laps 121 to 138) in the GT Le Mans class in the eighth hour of the race – the first time the No. 67 Ford GT has led laps in IMSA competition – and finished fifth in the car he co-drove with full-season drivers Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe. The sister No. 66 car, driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais finished eighth and continued after Mueller hydroplaned off into Turn 1.

The race marked Dixon’s, the four-time and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, first start in a GT car after all his past sports car starts have come in Prototypes – usually one of Ganassi’s Daytona Prototypes but occasionally an LMP1 car, as was the case with de Ferran Motorsports’ Acuras in the late 2000s.

For Dixon, now 35, he admitted there was a bit of a learning curve even as he had some success during the race, particularly with letting faster prototype class traffic by.

“It’s just very easy to be over cautious. If you see someone coming in the mirror, you want to give them room. But the best thing you can do is race hard and focus on your own issues at hand,” Dixon told NBC Sports post-race.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic. Coming from Barber with a lot more power and a lot more grip in the IndyCar, it was quite a big adjustment for the first session or two. But then I got a rhythm. It’s definitely a learning curve.”

Dixon was off a busy week where he finished seventh at the IndyCar opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in his usual No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and then headed with most of the IndyCar teams and drivers to Barber Motorsports Park on Tuesday for a one-day test.

After being home for a day, Dixon headed back to Sebring to be with the No. 67 car on Thursday. Sunny and warm conditions dominated the opening two days of action, before rain swept in on race day – and it was similarly treacherous conditions to the nightmarish Petit Le Mans last October, which rained non-stop all day.

Dixon praised both IMSA Race Control and Michelin for their respective efforts – this was also Dixon’s first start on Michelin tires since the American Le Mans Series days.

“It was pretty tricky. You never want to see a race get red flagged or stopped, but it was definitely the right call there,” Dixon said. “They were gonna wreck a lot of cars. There’s a lot of standing water at this place. Yeah when I got in the car, it was a little bit wet. Rainy a little bit. Then slicks.

“The car performed well in mixed conditions. The TC and stuff worked well. I was very impressed with the Michelin tires. Having done these races in the Prototype with the Continentals, it had been a bit tricky in the wet. So it was good to be on a good tire. I had a lot of fun out there. It was cool.”

Brad Goldberg, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Brad Goldberg, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Dixon is under no illusions that the road to his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut this year, as part of the same lineup but the renumbered No. 69 car for Le Mans, will be an easy one.

He heads to France later this week for simulator work – a requirement for all rookie drivers – and then he’ll have eight IndyCar races in-between (Phoenix, Long Beach, Barber, Indy GP, Indy 500, Detroit twice and Texas) before his next Ford GT start.

He’ll miss out on the Le Mans Test Day on June 5, owing to the second race of the IndyCar weekend at Detroit. He can do so as a Platinum-rated driver by the FIA; rookie drivers who are Platinum-rated can miss that test.

A week later, he’ll need to emulate Briscoe last year in leaving Texas straight after Texas and head straight to Le Mans for scrutineering, the two-day technical inspection in downtown Le Mans open to the public. Problem is, if Dixon wins Texas again like he did last year, it might be a bigger scramble.

But while the logistics might be challenging and the car a new one, Dixon knows most of the crew he’ll be with on the Ford GT program. Brad Goldberg, who had been Charlie Kimball’s engineer in IndyCar, is the engineer on this car and there’s other crew members Dixon has worked with throughout his 14-year tenure with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Yeah it does, man,” Dixon said when asked if this feels like home. “A lot of these people I’ve worked with many a times, sports car or IndyCar. For me, it’s the best scenario to go with this team to Le Mans. It feels very at home.

“To have the prep here at the 12-hour was important. The next time I’m in the car will be Le Mans. It’s a long break. There’s the simulator work to do, the safety procedures and protocols. I’ll have to learn the track a bit too. Yeah, it’s gonna be fun to appreciate the experience.”

The 1966 win was achieved by two of Dixon’s New Zealander countrymen, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon.

“You couldn’t have it any better with the history and delving into who won in ’66 with two Kiwis,” he said. “And then having it an in-house program with Ganassi, Ford and Multimatic.

“It just fits and it works, and it helps me maybe for later in my career doing some more races at Le Mans. It’s the perfect situation.

“Obviously we have one goal, and that’s to win, man. We have a lot of work to do, a lot to clean up and make it better and with not a lot of time.

“I’m excited to get there and be a part of that program. To be part of the history and what they have to try to do, to repeat the ’66 win.

“For motorsport in general, this is a pretty big deal.”

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”