Scott Dixon versus a legend

Posted by Iannucci | 5/30/2008 | 4 comments »
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Last weekend at Indy was tremendous for me since I had the chance to finally meet many of you in person. Here’s a hearty thanks to Karl, Jennifer, John, Andy, David, Erica, Eric, Dr Indy, and even the infamous “mmack” as well as Mrs “mmack”. I even got to chat briefly with both Cavin and Oreo, who coincidentally shared the same idol as young racing fans: Rick Mears.

I wasn’t taking any kind of notes, but my small sample of asking folks their favorite driver from when they were growing up indicated over half of you were Mears fans, which is a bit surprising considering how low-key he was. Mears wasn’t all over advertisements, wasn’t showing up at red-carpet events, and wasn’t exactly known for doing or saying attention-grabbing things. Even after his career ended he hasn’t been out in the spotlight the way people with names like Andretti and Foyt and Unser have been over the years. No, all Rick did was win Indy four times, finish in the Top 3 on three other occasions, and quietly build a name that stands on it’s own among the legends in racing.

Which got me thinking about the similarities between Mears and the guy that won this year.

Even before Scott Dixon was chugging milk last Sunday the similarities in personality – the calm demeanor, the patience on the track, the skill on any kind of course, and of course lots of wins for a dominant team – begged a comparison of these two drivers. So off to that statistics went your humble host, finding surprising similarities in several key categories between the two drivers.

In full disclosure I admit to only using Dixon’s IndyCar stats for this comparison, purposefully excluding those from the years when he was driving as a teenager in Champ CART. Call it cherry-picking if you must, but since Mears actually began his IndyCar career at a later age than Dixon it actually makes the comparison a bit more relevant. I fully admit that comparing a current driver in the middle of his career to one of the greatest of all time is a dicey proposition at best, but at least examine the numbers for yourself and decide whether we’re witnessing in Dixon a guy on a hot streak or a legend in the making.

Let’s start with Indianapolis, the rock upon which Mears has built his reputation. Check this out: At age 27, Mears started on the pole for the first time and won his first Indy 500 on his third attempt. Also at age 27 (yes, he’s that young) Dixon started on the pole for the first time and won his first Indy 500 on his sixth attempt. Eerie, and it gets better.

Extrapolating out that entire season from the first Indy 500 win, Mears in 1979 claimed the pole position twice and won 3 of 14 races. This year Dixon has already claimed 3 pole positions and won 2 of 5 races. That’s just one season showing Dixon may be peaking earlier than Mears, but let’s broaden things out to career numbers.

I can’t find the stats for pre-CART races in 1978, but from 1979 through 1992 Mears participated in 179 CART races. Here are Rick's stats for that period.
Wins: 26 (14.52%)
Races led: 75 races (42%)
Avg championship standings: 4.79
Avg finishing position: 7.52
Avg pct of laps led: 12.55%

Since he started racing at this level at a much earlier age, Dixon has already accumulated 84 starts in the Indy Racing League. You may say that his dominance so far has come against lesser competition than Mears, but I think the fact that he was doing it while in his early 20s has to count for something to offset that. Here are Scott's stats through last weekend.
Wins: 12 wins (14.26%)
Races led: 42 races (50%)
Avg championship standings: 5.17
Avg finish of race: 8.20
Avg pct of laps led: 11.66%

Just a tad similar, eh?

Now there are a few other drivers who have somewhat comparable numbers and a few more wins in the series. The important thing to note about them is that Dixon is having success at a younger age than guys like Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, and Dan Wheldon, all of whom have more IndyCar wins but (after Wheldon’s birthday in a few weeks) are also on the backside of age 30. With a little math you can see with still over two years of prime racing before he hits 30 Dixon is already within one or two wins of both Tony and Dan. Helio stands at the top of the bunch right now with 18 wins (combined CART/IRL) age 33, but to match that Dixon needs only 6 more wins in the next 5 season.

The point being that Dixon shouldn’t be measured solely against his contemporaries, because right now the Iceman is beginning to make a name for himself as not just one of the top drivers of his day but perhaps one the best ever. Granted, he probably needs to win the Indianapolis 500 a time or two more before comparisons to a guy like Mears become legitimate, but with his win at Indianapolis Dixon has the building blocks for an historic career already in place.

Now we just have to wait about 20 years to see how many youngsters grow up and say way back when Scott Dixon was their guy.

4 comments

  1. mmack // May 30, 2008 10:36 AM  

    Jeff,

    Here's some info for Mears pre-1979.

    The first start I found for Rick Mears is the California 500 in 1976. He ran 3 races in 1976, all with top 10 finishes.

    In 1977, he started 7 races, with 3 top 5 finishes and 1 top 10. DNQ at Indianapolis in his first appearance.

    In 1978 he joined Penske and went on a tear beginning at Indianapolis. After becoming the first rookie driver to qualify at 200 MPH (Sadly 1st 500 = DNF, Co-ROTY with Larry Rice), he was a runner up at Mosport (the race right after Indy), won his first race at Milwaukee in June, then took a win at Atlanta, runner up at the August Milwaukee race, runner up at Silverstone, and winner at Brands Hatch. He also had a top 5 at Phoenix and top 10's at Texas and California.

    Three wins as a rookie is nothing to overlook, especially since Mears was hired as a fill in for Mario Andretti in 1978. At the time, Mario was going for (and won) the World Driving Championship for Lotus, so Penske needed a driver for the races Mario couldn't start. Mears shared the #7 Gould Charge with Andretti, and started the #71 CAM2 Motor Oil Special at Indianapolis in the only race where both Mario and Rick started. Rick only started 11 of the 18 races in 1978 and had 3 wins, 2 runner ups, and a top 5 (5th).

  2. Jennifer of Dog.Yarn.Knit. // May 30, 2008 11:43 AM  

    Dixon is really winning me over. In all of his post-race interviews he has really impressed me and I think he is a great ambassador, not only for the 500, but for the sport in general.

  3. Demond Sanders // May 30, 2008 3:56 PM  

    I loved Rick Mears growing up. He won both of the first two 500s I attended (1988 and 1991).

    I'd take Rick Mears in a race against anybody (with the possible exception of Ditka driving a bus full of da Bears.)

    And I'm with you on Dixon. I was rooting hard against him for all of the obvious reasons, but I'm kind of glad he won now. Classy guy.

  4. mmack // May 31, 2008 7:04 AM  

    The key to the Dixon to Mears comparison is Mears was always working on the car during the race and never seemed to get too flustered if the car wasn't handling right. He used the entire race to make gradual changes to the set-up to get the car handling the way he wanted. Demond mentioned the 1988 and 1991 Indy 500's and those are perfect examples of Rick taking a less than optimally handling car and using the 500 miles to set the car up for the finish of the race.

    If Dixon has the kind of demeanor where he can work out with his crew chief and crew the changes he needs for the car, and keep it between the walls and in contention while he works on the set-up, then Scott Dixon will definitely be the quiet threat for years to come.

    I think Mears appeals to people who admire someone who shows up, does their job with confidence and excellence, and doesn't boast or brag no matter how successful they are. Rick never struck me as a "Look at me! I'm the Best Driver in the World!" type braggart, nor can I remember any "My stupid team did this and cost me the race." style statements from him. Certainly he showed disappointment at losing, but he never seemed to be a finger-pointer. And I think Scott seems to be the same way. Of course, I don't know how either man was\is out of the spotlight, but I'd like to think they have the same quiet confidence off the track, and an ego that doesn't need to be reinforced.

    Now Demond, if it was Dixon versus Ditka, who would win? :^P