(Photo: INDYCAR/Chris Owens)
Scott Dixon took the green flag last Sunday as the odds-on favorite to win the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500, just as he had in 2017 and 2020. And just as in 2017 and 2020, circumstances left Dixon leaving the Month of May disappointed, frustrated, and still looking for that elusive second Borg-Warner Trophy.
I don’t believe there is another race in the world that is more difficult to win than the Indianapolis 500, especially now with so many drivers and teams performing at such a high level. In spite of having one of the largest budgets in the field and one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time behind the wheel, there are so many factors that are simply beyond the driver and team’s control that handicapping the race is nearly impossible.
I have long contended – as I said in my Indianapolis 500 preview last week – that it is not enough to simply do everything perfectly during the race. Nor is it good enough to just get lucky. You have to do everything perfectly just to put yourself in a position to take advantage of the luck required to win. Once in a blue moon (see Sam Hornish in 2006), luck can overcome a flawed race, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
In the 2017 Indianapolis 500, Dixon was the favorite entering the race after winning his third pole position. Though he only led five laps early in the race, he was still competitive throughout the first quarter of the race until he got caught up in Jay Howard’s accident. Dixon just happened to be in the very right spot at the very wrong time to have his day go south quickly in a haunting and spectacular way. It was only by the grace of God that Dixon walked away from his destroyed race car after essentially sailing across the entire length of the 1/8-mile south chute. In spite of doing everything right, Dixon ran out of luck and was out for the day.
Three years later, Dixon was again the undisputed favorite in spite of starting in second position, a starting position that has yielded only a single victory since man first walked on the moon in 1969. In that race, Dixon really didn’t have much in the way of bad luck, but his team didn’t execute everything exactly correctly and it bit him late in the race. While he dominated for the first 170 laps, Dixon simply did not have his car set up to match that of Takuma Sato when it was time to push the chips to the middle of the table. A poor strategy decision (in hindsight) let Sato pass Dixon on Lap 172 as it seemed, at the time, that Dixon would have no problem passing him back later in the race and sitting in second would allow Dixon to save a bit more fuel.
As it turned out, Sato had been running a race very reminiscent to how Rick Mears used to run, working constantly to improve his car throughout the race until he had it exactly as he wanted it for the final 100 miles. Sato simply outsnookered Dixon and his Ganassi team to the victory. While many people point to the late race yellow flag caused by Spencer Pigot’s frightening crash and say it cost Dixon the win, I don’t believe that Dixon would have caught and passed Sato even had the race gone green to the end. Sato was exceptionally strong in the second half of the race and especially over the last 100 miles.
These aren’t the only times Dixon has come up agonizingly short. Scott also had runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2012 and led the most laps in the 2009, 2011, and 2015 races, yielding finishes of sixth, fifth, and fourth, respectively.
It isn’t just Scott Dixon who has walked away without the win in spite of being the heavy favorite. In fact, only on rare occasions does such a unanimous favorite actually win the race. Since I started attending the race in 1988, the only times I can recall the obvious favorite winning the race was 1994 (though favorites were pretty well split between Little Al and Emmo, ONE of them was surely going to win) and 2009. Some people might legitimately include Simon Pagenaud’s 2019 win in that short list as well. Before then, most people would point to Johnny Rutherford in 1980 as the last clear-cut favorite to actually pull into Victory Lane. The point is, it doesn’t happen very often.
I don’t believe it’s the pressure of being the favorite that got to Scott Dixon and his PNC Ganassi Racing crew last weekend. That team and driver have been through pressure-packed situations together for the last 18 years in INDYCAR. I think it’s just a matter of odds. Drivers in Sunday’s race completed a total of 6,308 laps. That’s 25,232 left-hand turns. Every one of those turns is a potential disaster that can end a driver’s day even if he isn’t the cause of the accident. One need look no further than the saga of Conor Daly’ whose bid for a win effectively came to a halt when the separated tire of Graham Rahal fell out of the sky and landed right in the path of Daly. Daly had done everything perfectly to that point but had luck go against him in an instant before he could respond.
Considering that Scott Dixon has won six IndyCar championships and 51 IndyCar races, it is nearly inconceivable that he has “only” a single Indianapolis 500 win, especially when considering that he is within striking distance of being the all-time lap leader at the Indianapolis 500. (Dixon currently trails Al Unser, Sr., by only 74 laps on that list.) I feel certain Dixon would never say he career needs another Indianapolis 500 win, and he even said on TV last week that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “owes [him] nothing.”
Inside, though, it’s hard to believe Dixon doesn’t think he’s at least deserving of a second Indianapolis win and that he wouldn’t be at least somewhat disappointed to never drink the milk again. But Dixon is also a student of the sport and realizes that the greats Mario and Michael Andretti have just a single win combined between them. Having an Indianapolis 500 win isn’t a prerequisite for legendary status and having multiple wins at the Brickyard certain isn’t either. BUT, winning a second 500 would put Dixon into a different class of winners, one that reduces the club of winners from 73 men to only 20.
Nonetheless, Dixon’s legacy is secure regardless of what happens for the final few years of his career. If he never has a second face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, that should not diminish his illustrious and nearly unmatched career. And Dixon will one day walk away from the sport with at least one Indianapolis 500 victory and no less than six INDYCAR Championships. Seeing another Indianapolis 500 victories slip through his hands probably hurt for a couple days, but Dixon will move on and get back to business starting next weekend at Detroit in hot pursuit of his record-tying seventh INDYCAR Championship. Another empty Month of May will not detract him from that goal.