Motorsport: 500 MILES TO IMMORTALITY

By Eric Thompson

Dixon ready for a dog fight in 100th Indy 500, writes Eric Thompson.
Scott Dixon is regarded as the best IndyCar driver of his generation, having won the Indy 500 in 2008 and clinched his fourth IRL title last year. Photo / AP
Scott Dixon is regarded as the best IndyCar driver of his generation, having won the Indy 500 in 2008 and clinched his fourth IRL title last year. Photo / AP

The winner of this year's Indianapolis 500 IndyCar race is going to have the mother of all bragging rights no other past winner can match.

He, or she, will trump all before them when their likeness is immortalised on the Borg Warner trophy simply by being able to say they won the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The first race was in fact held in 1911, but not in 1917 nor 1918 (World War I) nor from 1942 to 1945 (World War II). The Indy 500 is the biggest single day sporting event in the world and, for the first time in 100 years, will be sold out. Although organisers don't reveal official figures, it is estimated that 400,000 people will watch the race from somewhere at the track.

Despite the efforts of some of New Zealand's most illustrious racers, including Formula One world champion Denny Hulme, Ferrari works F1 driver Chris Amon, the gifted Bruce McLaren, Indy Lights champion Wade Cunningham, Graham McRae and Rob Wilson, the only Kiwi to have drunk the pint of milk in victory lane is Scott Dixon. The New Zealander is regarded as the best IndyCar driver of his generation having won the Indy 500 in 2008 and clinched his fourth IRL title last year.

Dixon is normally inside the top five qualifiers in the fortnight before the big day. But not this year. He struggled with pace in the two weeks before the race and, at the end of practice before the second day of qualifying, the team discovered a fluid leak in the Chip Ganassi No 9 race car.

"I guess we always knew we were going to be in the race [having already qualified the day before], but obviously you don't want to start last," said Dixon after final practice.

"I didn't think it was possible, and to get the engine change done in just over an hour [64 minutes] is just about impossible. It was definitely really cool to see all four teams [Chip Ganassi Racing has four cars in the event] going at it. There were probably 20 people helping to change the engine. It was definitely touch and go and they got there with probably only 10 minutes to spare."

Drivers and crews are used to engine failures, but not an hour or so out from trying to set a grid position for the biggest race of the year. In normal circumstances, drivers have a few laps to make sure something isn't gong to come flying off or break before going flat out. Not this time. Dixon had complete faith in his team and went as hard as he could.

"I wouldn't have been so confident of getting in the car if I had worked on it. You have a little niggle about pushing the car hard straight away, but with the Ganassi team behind everything, it makes it easier with an engine that's never been out on the track.

"We made other adjustments to the car with suspension settings and aero, so it was pretty insane, but you've got nothing to lose, so it was all positive thoughts that it was going to be all right.

"Sure, for the first time barrelling into turn one at 370km/h, you think 'I hope this thing gets through here'. It was a bit different from normal qualifying, that's for sure. It's been a funny start to the race, so I hope we've got all our bad stuff out of the way."

Starting from midfield is not ideal, but it is a long race. In past years, drivers have won from as far back as 28th on the grid, but that was back in the 1930s. Things have come a long way since then and the racing is a lot tighter - in effect it's now a sprint over 200 laps. To add a bit of positivity to Dixon's 13th start position, the past four winners have started from 16th, 12th, 19th and 15th, so all is not lost.

Dixon is well aware a few drivers may suffer from red mist when the start flag is waved. Ever the unruffled professional, the Kiwi will be concentrating on doing his own thing and trying to stay out of trouble.

"Our time in final practice saw us third fastest. The car was quite good and felt competitive and right now I feel we can put up a good fight and race for the win.

"Everyone's plan to start with will be to try and get as far up the front as you can. That's always the goal anyway, as is trying to avoid trouble. It's all about compromise, really, and making some quick decisions on your feet.

"I don't know - you have plans and visions before the start but once the race gets going, it can all change in seconds. You don't want to go into the race with too many pre-set notions.

"I think we've got a competitive car and we can move to the front quickly and let the others sort themselves out," he said.

The Indianapolis 500 isn't just about going around and around for 200 laps. For a start, it's more of a rounded off rectangle than a pure oval and has four distinct bends.

Couple that with speeds up to 380km/h for hour after hour with cars in front, either side and rear, and the smallest lapse in concentration can end in a big mess.

"It's like anything, you've got to pick your battles and, as the race wears on, small things may start happening with the car, like a bit of under steer or over steer. And, if you're not concentrating, that's when it can bite you in the arse big-time.

"You hope to be on the lead lap with 20 minutes to go. Each part of the race, though, plays out in its own unique way and you have to reset a couple of times during the race.

"Even more important than being on the lead lap, you have to be fourth or fifth with five laps to go to win this thing. It's definitely going to be a dog fight right down to the end."

At least he has one big thing in his favour - his fitness. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Dixon was ranked the 33rd fittest sportsman ahead of the likes of NBA star Stephen Curry, five top NFL players and UFC hero Conor McGregor.

Of all the races, trying to pick a winner in the Indy 500 is the hardest. Sentimental favourite will be James Hinchliffe, who made pole a year after a massive crash that almost ended his career. Others to look at will be 2014 champion Ryan Hunter-Ray (third on grid) along with two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya (17th), Will Power (sixth) who's always in the hunt and you can't rule out three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (ninth), and, of course, Dixon.

The race starts at 4am on Monday New Zealand time.

- NZ Herald

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