Photo: IndyCar

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

1 Comment

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.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR Photo
Leave a comment

It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500