IndyCar legend Scott Dixon finally gets the hang of it in iRacing

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VIRTUAL MOTEGI, Japan — Prior to Saturday’s Firestone 175 IndyCar iRacing Challenge virtual race at Twin Ring Motegi, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon admitted he wasn’t living up to his on-track reputation.

In real-world IndyCar racing, there are only two drivers have more wins than Dixon’s 46. Those include AJ Foyt with 67 and Mario Andretti’s 52.

Both of those drivers are on auto racing’s “Mount Rushmore” for legendary career accomplishments.

When Dixon was asked to participate in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, he didn’t know what to make of it. To him, it was more of a game than a competition.

“When I built my sim rig, I considered adding a beer holder,” Dixon quipped on Friday.

It’s a good thing he didn’t install such that, because Dixon would have had no time to take a drink. He was too busy racing wheel-to-wheel and nose-to-tail at high speeds in Saturday’s fourth race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

He tried his best to size up race-leader Simon Pagenaud on the closing lap to make the race-winning pass. But Pagenaud, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner, used the same draft-breaking technique Saturday that he used to hold off Alexander Rossi in last year’s Indy 500.

Pagenaud’s zigzag moves never gave Dixon a chance to hold onto the draft and make a slingshot pass.

“When he first did it, it was out of turn two, I thought he was pitting,” Dixon said to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I didn’t know we were racing actually for the lead. I thought we were racing for second place, I was so focused on trying to get to the end, I didn’t even know we were racing for the win.

“Everybody is racing hard. I thought it was awesome. It was a great show, a lot of fun. I think it was exciting. Simon did a hell of a job. That’s what it takes at the end to win, is you got to take risks. Kudos to them. It was fun to be a part of it and fun to watch.”

Pagenaud drove to the checkered flag just ahead of Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank virtual Honda.

Amazingly, Dixon slammed into the back of Pagenaud’s race winning virtual No. 22 Chevrolet. That created a spectacular crash that also involved Helio Castroneves’ car with both cars flying airborne.

Good thing it was virtual and not real.

Afterwards, Dixon admitted to making a rookie mistake.

“I was running for a spectacular finish there, and didn’t realize it was the last lap,” Dixon said. “I thought we were still racing, man.

“Seems like I need to start realizing things a lot more.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

For Dixon, though, a second-place finish was an accomplishment considering his previous IndyCar iRacing Challenge performances.

He did not participate in the opening round at virtual Watkins Glen International on March 28 because he did not have a sim rig completed. His debut came in the second race, the April 4 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, at virtual Barber Motorsports Park. Dixon started 16th and finished 16th, one lap down.

It was such an “Un-Dixon-like” performance that Team Penske driver Will Power called him “a wanker” in the closing laps of the race.

The next week at Michigan International Speedway was even worse when Dixon was out of the race after just six laps. He said he watched the rest of that contest from his couch.

Finally, on Saturday at Twin Ring Motegi, the virtual Scott Dixon finally lived up to the heroic exploits of the real thing.

I was just happy to make it to the finish,” Dixon said. “That was, like, goal number one for me.”

Dixon admitted he made a mistake on his final pit stop when he overshot his virtual pit area.

“I drove through my pit box, had to reverse up, and went from first to fourth,” said the winning driver of the 2008 Indianapolis 500. “On that stint, for whatever reason, I had understeer in traffic behind the Team Penske cars.

“For me kind of learning the spatial awareness. Scott McLaughlin’s car was jumping a lot. The previous week I actually ran with people like that, I didn’t understand it. Trying to give everybody enough room.

“Good job by Simon there. It was really close at the end. For me it was a lot of fun. I think just to get to the finish was goal number one for me.”

Driver Scott Dixon — Getty Images

Dixon called his second-place finish “mega.” He also compared the different emotions from driving a virtual racing to what he experiences in a real on-track battle.

“To be racing at the front, I wouldn’t say the emotions are on par, because it’s a very different feeling,” Dixon said. “When you go into different portions of the virtual weekend, from practice to qualifying, it’s tough. In qualifying you get a little tense; the heart rate goes up to nail the lap. For a lot of us, everybody’s competitive nature, everybody wants to try to do well. That’s how you can get sucked into it so much.

“I think it has similarities in a lot of ways. The emotions, as we see through the race from lap to lap, people competing, it can be pretty calm. Then it gets escalated pretty quickly which is very realistic, too.”

Dixon has discovered that success in iRacing is similar to any other sport. In order to be good at it, it takes a lot of time. As a devoted family man, however, there are only so many hours in a day.

“It’s very time consuming,” Dixon said. “I think it’s going to be very easy to fall into the slippery slope of wanting to do more. As I said the other day, I’m kind of having to do my ‘honey do list’ to get credits going on the sim. That’s been working out.

“I finally took the beer holder off my sim, starting to get a little more serious.

“I enjoy it. I’m not sure I want to spend hours on end downstairs. It’s been a lot of fun so far. A day like this shows if you put some effort in you can race with some really good guys.”

The next challenge for Dixon and his fellow IndyCar Series drivers is the fifth race of the series at Circuit of the Americas (COTA). That’s the site of where the real AutoNation IndyCar Classic was scheduled for next weekend before it was canceled on March 13.

“I was saying to Will Power earlier, two corners are easier than what we have coming up next week,” Dixon said. “It will be pretty tough and interesting to see. I think you’ll see the iRacing pros that put in the time will be really sound next week.

“We had a spotter this week, which was definitely a big help. Even talking to the engineer, making sure the tires were checked, going through that process I think is a big deal as these guys spoke about.

“The tricky part is you’re learning to drive something that you can only manipulate. You can’t really make changes to your style or anything like that. You really just have to learn the style the car is, which I’ve found quite tough in a lot of ways and will do next week once we go back to a road course as well.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500