INDIANAPOLIS — Long before Scott Dixon became one of the most successful racecar drivers in history, winning six IndyCar Series championships and 51 races in a span of nearly two decades, he relied on his natural talent to get ahead.
Turbocharged reaction time. Willingness to drive on the itty-bitty edge that separates maintaining control from losing it. An instinct for how to adjust a car to make it go faster and for usinga chess master’s mind to predict how a race will unfold.
And, of course, fearlessness — evenat speeds around 240 miles per hour, which can make a car so ornery that a driver needs to wrestle the steering wheel to tame it. Even after losing close friends to crashes and serving as one of their pallbearers.
Ask around the sport these days, though, andmanypeople will explain that Dixon, 40, is within a win of tying Mario Andretti for the second-most American open-wheel car victories because heis a hard-working star with a secret weapon.
That would be Emma Davies-Dixon, his wife. Davies-Dixon, 42, was a standout middle-distance runner who competed internationally for Britain. She knows what it takes to win.
“I’m convinced more than ever that his greatest asset is Emma,” said Chip Ganassi, owner of the team Dixon has been with for 20 years. “I didn’t put anything down for that 10 years ago, but now I realize just how important it is. She’s even more competitive than he is and has a complete understanding of what a championship racecar driver needs.”
On Sunday, for the fourth time in his career, Dixon will start the Indianapolis 500 from the pole position in his No. 9 car. Sitting in their motor home parked in the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month, with their 14-year-old Maltese named George on Emma’s lap, the couple lamented that Scott had won the Indy 500 only once, back in 2008.
Scott Dixon and his wife, Emma Davies-Dixon, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a break from practice.Credit…A J Mast for The New York Times
That was a magical day — one that Dixon first dreamed of when he raced a go-kart at age 7, before becoming a racecar champion in his home country, New Zealand.
To be sure, though, winning the Indy 500 — the sport’s most prestigious race — is every IndyCar driver’s dream.First run in 1911, it became a Memorial Day weekend tradition. It is the biggest single-day spectator event in the United States, with around 350,000 fans at the 2.5-mile oval track. This year, the spectator limit will be about 135,000 because of coronavirus concerns.
Dixon relishes the memory from 2008 of chugging milk in the winner’s circle, as so many champions had done before him. Afterward, he got a call from New Zealand offering him what he thought, ecstatically, was “land for life.” Now he tells the story with a laugh. He had misheard. The prize was “lamb for life,” offered by a New Zealand sheep breeders association, and it wasn’t a great fit, considering Davies-Dixon had persuaded her husband to stop eating all meat but chicken.
Dixon has finished second three times — including last year, when he led 111 of the 200 laps. All of those races ended under a yellow caution flag, meaning that Dixon could not make an effort to pass the leader.
“It’s so unfair,” Davies-Dixon said of those frustrating second-place finishes. She grabbed Dixon’s arm and leaned into him. “But this is your year, isn’t it? This is our year!”
Dixon smiled and said, “I really hope so.”
Dixon was in his mid-20s and already a one-time IndyCar champion when he met Emma Davies in 2006. He had been living a bachelor’s life, partying with his friends, skipping main courses to go straight to dessert and eating Taco Bell or whatever he found in his fridge and cupboards.
It raised Davies’s eyebrows when she learned Dixon could win without buttoning up every aspect of his life. At that time, she wasn’t competing as a runner, having taken a break after her father, who was also her coach, died of cancer at 47. Davies redirected her passion for competition to Dixon, falling in love with him while devising a plan to help his career.
She improved his eating habits, keeping nuts, seeds and fruit on hand so that when he blindly grabbed something from the kitchen it wouldn’t be just Swedish candy fish or Twix chocolate bars. She got rid of the red meat; now his menu is mainly plant-based. She extolled the re-energizing power of napping. At a certain time every evening, she would tap her watch at him to signal bedtime.
“‘If this is going to be a longevity situation,’ I told him, ‘if you want to be a Tom Brady or a Michael Jordan, you’ve got to start doing things differently,’” she said. “You’ve got to start working on the little things.”
She was right, Scott Dixon said: Little things do add up to big things. Like winning championships. In 2008, the year they married, Dixon won his second IndyCar title, and he has only gotten better since.
Racing is hard even for the youngest, freshest drivers. Cars can zoom the length of a football field in a single second. Drivers often must withstand gravitational forces harsher than those sometimes felt by astronauts being rocketed into space.
Dixon explained that the temperature in his driver’s seat is higher than 100 degrees and that he can lose up to seven pounds of fluids during a race. The physical and mental strain is compounded by how intense the competition has become in recent years. The days when drivers would win the Indy 500 by several laps, Dixon said, have been replaced by 28 cars on the lead lap. His mind and body must be perfectly calibrated for him to win.
“It’s kind of like a hangover, right?” Dixon said. “In my 20s, I was like, ‘What’s a hangover?’ I’d have a couple of drinks and would feel fine the next day. Now I have a couple of drinks and I wake up feeling cloudy. It’s that way in racing now. Not as easy as it used to be, so I need to work even harder to stay competitive.”
Dario Franchitti, the four-time IndyCar champion who was teammates with Dixon for several years and now is a driver consultant for Chip Ganassi Racing, said Davies-Dixon had helped her husband both on and off the track.
Dixon kept so much to himself when he arrivedin the series in the early 2000s that he earned the nickname the Iceman for his lack of emotion. Even now, Dixon said, “I have a core group of really close friends, but I don’t really mix with other drivers.”
Franchitti is one of those friends.
“When I first met Scott, yeah, I might have thought he was a jerk because he didn’t say two words,” Franchitti said. “But he must have talked sometime. Hey, he was able to chat up Emma and get her to marry him. Maybe that was a one-time deal and he put all of his effort into that.”
Franchitti said that Davies-Dixon, a former sports broadcaster and a born storyteller, had loosened up her husband. Now he actually chats with other drivers at the track, though those conversations tend to be short. Yet by just flipping a mental switch, he transforms from a happy, loving husband and father of two young daughters and an infant son, becoming a ferocious athlete. His wife would not think of tinkering with that.
When he was driving, Franchitti said he would need an hour of solitude to get into race mode. Dixon, however, would hop into his racing suit and head to the track with barely a minute to spare.
Davies-Dixon can flip on that competitive switch, too, Franchitti said.
“If Scott doesn’t win, after the race, I’ll say, ‘Oh, no, it’s OK, Scott,’ and Emma will say, ‘What the hell happened out there?’” Franchitti said with a laugh. “They are two of the most competitive, yet nicest people you’ll ever meet. They are perfect for each other.”
The Dixons are able to shut off their competitive side when they need to, and in a sport in which death and injuries are always possible, they consider everyone on the circuit to be family.
Franchitti said Dixon had visited him in a physical-rehabilitation center every day, cups of coffee in hand, after Franchitti’s career-ending crash in 2013. Because of a concussion, Franchitti has only snippets of memories from the first five weeks after the crash. But his mother told him that Dixon had been there for him. Franchitti said he vaguely remembered Dixon calling him before the last race of the season to discuss strategy.
“And he did all this when he was in the championship race,” Franchitti said. “He’s a very compassionate person, but he’s an absolute machine.”
Davies-Dixon likes and understands her fine-tuned machine of a husband because she can recall being one, too. Still, she marvels at her husband’s ability to block out sadness or fear when he is behind the wheel.
On his way to winning a championship last year, Scott held his emotions back after his father, Ron, spent weeks in a New Zealand hospital and nearly died of complications from an infection.
Dixon continued to compete through the devastation of losing three close friends in fatal crashes: Tony Renna in 2003, Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Justin Wilson in 2015.
After Wheldon’s death, the Dixons stayed with his widow, Susie Wheldon, in her hotel room while she waited for family to arrive. That night, Davies-Dixon slept in the bed with Susie, bringing the Wheldons’ infant son, Oliver, to her every few hours to nurse. The Dixons even moved their family to St. Petersburg, Fla., from Indianapolis for four months to be near Wheldon and her two children.
Davies-Dixon said the only time she had seen her husband cry was when he stood next to Susie Wheldon as she eulogized Dan at his memorial service.
Dixon didn’t even shed a tear, Davies-Dixon said, when he broke his left ankle in a fiery crash at the 2017 Indianapolis 500. He raced the very next week, finishing second.
“Some wives are terrified and they don’t want to watch the races because they are afraid it will be their turn,” Davies-Dixon said, growing quiet. “And every time Scott goes out there, I just pray that it’s not going to be my turn.”
But like her husband, Davies-Dixon compartmentalizes masterfully. She has to if she wants to support her husband until he retires from racing, which doesn’t appear likely to happen any time soon.
Scott Dixon explained that some drivers retire because they grow comfortable with their riches and lifestyle. Others leave the sport because they feel lucky to have dodged death or injury. But he will consider retirement, he said, only when there is no chance to win anymore.
And right now Dixon remains at the top of his sport. He has won at least one race per year over 19 consecutive seasons, breaking A.J. Foyt’s record of 18. His wife is cheering for him to keep going. He is only one series championshipaway from tying Foyt’s record of seven.
“I’m more like, ‘C’mon, you’re here. You are so close to making history. You can do it!’” Davies-Dixon said. “We both want to win races and another championship so badly.”