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 

Jack Miller wins MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his points slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.