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Dream weekend at Watkins Glen defeats Dixon’s 2016 run of bad luck

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Scott Dixon had himself a weekend at Watkins Glen International.

He led every session (three practice, qualifying, warmup and the race). He won the pole. He led 50 of 60 laps. He scored his 40th career win, which broke a tie with Bobby Unser and puts him into fourth on North American open-wheel racing’s all-time wins list.

And because Dixon isn’t just a superhuman behind the wheel, but also bordering on superhuman as a human status, he’s donating his winnings to the Justin Wilson Children’s Fund.

So about the only thing that went wrong this weekend was that Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan pipped him for fastest lap of the race.

“I think TK actually got fast lap in the race, which is one thing I didn’t get. I’ll talk to him about that later,” Dixon deadpanned in the post-race press conference.

But it was a weekend in a rare year for the four-time and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion that’s been off song, where everything else finally went right.

The driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet looked poised for another title run with a better-than-usual start at a couple of his traditional “bogey” tracks, at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. He won at Phoenix in the series’ return there, owing to phenomenal pit stops from his crew.

Since that win, however, way back on April 2, it’s been the lost opportunities that have stuck out and gnawed at the usually unflappable Kiwi for the rest of the year.

That runner-up finish at Long Beach?  It was controversial at the time. Simon Pagenaud won his first race for Team Penske and did so by way of beating Dixon out of the pits, having driven the wheels off his No. 22 car and then having his strategist, Kyle Moyer, outsmart Dixon and Mike Hull at their own game.

At Barber, he finished off the podium for the first time ever, after getting hit by his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT sports car teammate, Sebastien Bourdais, only a month before the two of them would head to Le Mans together.

Seventh and eighth place finishes at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 were the definition of nondescript. The latter result particularly hurt owing to double points.

A DNF, then a race driven with an apparent broken suspension followed at the doubleheader in Detroit.

We then got the sense of Dixon’s near time-traveling abilities in the month of June. After Detroit, Dixon went from Texas’ false start a week later through to his incredible debut at Le Mans, setting fastest race lap in his second ever start in the car and first at Circuit de la Sarthe, then flying back to test at Watkins Glen the next day, before Road America the following week.

But as the IndyCar season restarted at Road America, Dixon’s poor run of luck restarted along with it.

At Road America, there was the component failure that left him 22nd and last. Third at Iowa was then followed by that brutal day in Toronto, a sure win gone missing after Dixon – who with Hull was covering Pagenaud to atone for the Long Beach miss – got caught out by a yellow. And Power, who usually’s caught the short end of the stick, won it.

There was the contact, a rare unforced error, with Helio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio. A decent but still tough drive to sixth in Pocono.

Then, there was last week, in Texas, when all the emotions of this unplanned – so un-Dixon – type of year erupted in full force after contact with Ed Carpenter.

When the two collided and Dixon went into the wall, Dixon’s emulation of Power dropping the infamous “double birds” followed.

“I guess sometimes, you get pretty fired up. I was disappointed in the situation,” he told me on Saturday. “What most people sometimes don’t see is the high levels of emotion that any sport has. Sometimes the camera catches it, sometimes it doesn’t.

“Sometimes you’re at the breaking point; with the circumstances we had, sometimes, it boils over.”

If anything, the problem we have with Dixon is that we expect perfection, because this is what we’ve been lucky enough to have been treated to for the 16 years he’s been in IndyCar.

Since debuting as that awkward, quiet, bleach-blonde-haired 20-year-old with Bruce McCaw in 2001, a year before he got the call-up to Chip Ganassi’s team thanks to a combination of McCaw’s PacWest (then PWR Championship Racing) team going under and Toyota saving his career, Dixon’s become the gold standard for an IndyCar driver in the modern era.

We don’t appreciate him fully because we’re so well-conditioned to his greatness, and we’re only stupefied when he’s not.

Since that first of three straight wins at Watkins Glen in 2005 – which he achieved in a less-than-competitive Panoz-Toyota in what had been a nightmarish season for driver and team, at the time – Dixon’s won multiple races, three more championships, and finished in the top three in points every single season since, from 2006.

And until Sunday, when he entered the day sixth in points with only that singleton win at Phoenix to his scorecard this year, both those streaks were on the line.

It’s no small stroke of form that today’s win punctuated a typically perfect, super cool, Dixon weekend… that was his second win of the year and vaulted him to third in the championship.

Sadly, the only downside for him comes with the fact he was all but mathematically eliminated from defending his title. At 104 points, he and Helio Castroneves will be out once Simon Pagenaud and Will Power take the green flag at Sonoma.

But points were not the story of the weekend. The story was that Dixon and the No. 9 team around him exuded their usual greatness, and for once in 2016, didn’t have any negative thing ruin it.

“I wish it happened a lot more often,” he said. “You know, that’s the hard part, right, is that these are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race.

“We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.”

The only request Dixon had post-race was that INDYCAR, which just added Watkins Glen for two more years beyond 2016, can find a way to race here more than once per season.

“I just love being back here, and I think we should have a double points race here and probably race two or three times at the Glen,” he laughed.

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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