Scott Dixon and the Sim age divide

While Shane Van Gisbergen, Scott McLaughlin and Liam Lawson appear to be having a high old time contesting the various Sim racing series which have popped up to take the place of the real thing during the Covid-19 lockdown periods around the world, one top-line Kiwi international who – it would seem – cannot wait for the ‘on-track action’ to resume is five-time IndyCar champion – and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner – Scott Dixon.

Scott’s best finish across the six-round IndyCar iRacing Challenge was a second to Simon Pagenaud at the fourth round at a virtual Twin-Ring Motegi oval in Japan on April 18.

Before and after that though – and on ovals as well as virtual road courses, the driver they call ‘The Iceman’ has struggled.

“It’s been a steep learning curve for me,” the now 39-year-old father of three said in an interview with the website after his Motegi success.

Scott Dixon and Will Power go wheel-to-wheel through Turn 3 during the Firestone 175 at Twin Ring Motegi, the fourth race in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge — Photo by: Chris Graythen (Getty Images)

Contrast Dixon’s struggles with the second (albeit incredibly lucky) win by fellow Kiwi Scott McLaughlin in the sixth and final round in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at a virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday May 02.

McLaughlin, remember, has yet to actually start a ‘real’ race on a US oval, yet he was in the right place at the right time to grab a last-gasp win when Oliver Askew and Santino Ferrucci collided while battling for the lead within sight of the chequered flag.

Come June 06, and the first of the rescheduled rounds of the ‘real’ NTT IndyCar Series (The Genesys 300) at Texas Motor Speedway, and – arguably even more so – at the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday August 23, and I think – as far as Scott Dixon is concerned anyway – the (racing) boot will be back on the other foot.

It is certainly interesting though, isn’t it, how what – up until now has been little more than a hobby for most drivers – has become another key tool in a driver’s ‘rise up through the ranks’ kit?’

It is also interesting how quickly the next generation (aka the kids currently competing in KartSport’s – under 16 – Junior classes) have cottoned on to the fact, and are now merrily mixing it in and on a variety of different ‘cars’ and full-size tracks from around the world with their Senior colleagues (something they cannot do, by the way, at any real kart track) at KartSport NZ’s now weekly ‘Virtual Club Days’ every Tuesday evening.

Then there is just how good our current crop of kart-turned-car stars are on a Sim.

As I write this (on Sunday afternoon) the 2KCup’s Bathurst 6 Hr has just started and I see that reigning NZ KZ2 class champ Matt Payne is holding the early lead from NZ’s current single-seater sensation Liam Lawson with Best Bars Toyota 86 Championship front-runner (and a bloke it has to be said, with some (very!!) real world experience of the Mt Panorama circuit) Peter Vodanovich in third.

So, that’s a 17-year-old professional kart racer from Papakura, leading an 18-year-old professional racing car driver from Pukekohe and a 19-year-old engineering student who got his start in the sport on a Sim.

In-between – age-wise – are what I suppose you could call the pioneers of the brave new age of Sim racing, Brendon Hartley (30) and Shane Van Gisbergen (31).

Shane in fact has been training on a Sim for as long as I have known him, and was a regular on the Supercar Sim circuit – racing as himself, against a field full of (admittedly very good) no-names – for years before ‘everyone started to do it’ this year.

Brendon Hartley, is also an old-hand on a Sim, having established himself as an expert when he worked for the Mercedes F1 team, then carried that discipline over into the rarefied worlds of real-world LMP1 racing, F1 and now the ABB Formula E series.

On one level, of course, age has little to do with success either in the real or virtual worlds.

What does though is, what I will describe as ‘time of your life.’

At age 18, for instance, Matt Payne can focus 100 % on his career.

So – up to a point – can a 30-year-old Brendon Hartley, though as a married man he – I’m sure – is starting to understand the notion of ‘responsibility.’

At 39 (with the big 4 ‘oh’ coming up on July 22) and now the father of three children, Scott Dixon is in a different league altogether; something the long-time expat pretty much admitted in the interview.

“What has put it into perspective (for me),” he said, “is being at home with the kids E-Learning, then trying to get on a simulator throughout the day when you can and try and keep up the normal training levels that we try to once we get back to proper racing.”

To the point where (as any married man will identify with) Dixon and wife Emma have come up with a ‘Honey Do’ list.

“Each tick off the box I get, I get an extra 30 minutes on the simulator,” Scott told the website.

Which – in my humble opinion – puts the whole real vs virtual worlds of racing into perspective.

No matter how good either a serious ‘real’ racer like Scott McLaughlin or even an F1 star-in-the-making like Lando Norris gets on a Sim he (or she) will still be competing from the safety of their own home (or workspace).

Yes, I know that at later rounds of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge Series Scott Dixon was joined ‘on-line’ by a race engineer (to help with car set-up, tyre degradation and pit strategy) as well as a spotter!!!

But that was only because that’s what all the other driver/team combinations like compatriot and namesake Scott McLaughlin’s Pirtek-backed Penske squad were doing.

“It’s (definitely) a pretty class act at Team Penske,” McLaughlin confirmed in an interview of his own, this time on Spain’s Formula Rapida website.

“For the first event, Watkins Glen, I didn’t have a spotter or engineer helping me and when I realized there were a few drivers who (did) we jacked up the preparation, data share and all that stuff.”

Which is all a (very) far cry from when Scott Dixon was a chipmunk-cheeked 15-year-old with a ready smile, impish sense of humour and what I’m sure he realises now was the ideal environment in which to hone what most of us recognise now as a once-in-a-generation gift to drive the wheels off a racing car.

The current world of Sim racing was but a gleam in some Gen X-er’s eye at that stage; though like most kids his age, Scott couldn’t resist the appeal of what at the time were still called ‘Arcades’ and the console games you played in them ‘Arcade Games.’

I wish I could recall the exact connection, but I can’t. All I remember from those carefree days of yore was that somewhere along the way we (as in myself, Ron, Scott, Regan Morgan, David Good and Andrew ‘Bodgie’ Reeves) hooked up with Sega and Auckland’s leading (as in least seedy) purveyor of  Arcade Game ‘pleasures’ the Stages Time Out Centres, for some sort of nationwide Sega Rally promotion using Scott as the ‘hook.’

Perhaps the introduction was through Turners Car Auctions, because I can remember there being some sort of link with regional winners of some sort of comp being flown to Auckland for a ‘Ride of Your Life’ type prize with Scott in a Dodge Viper which Turners had acquired as some sort of promo car.

Whatever, Scott was happy enough to ‘play along’ with the Stages Time Out promo because he got to do as much Sega Rally  ‘driving’ as he could fit between school and whatever time he went to bed.

I seem to remember both he and Regan (who would have been 17 or 18 at the time) got rather good at the game as well.

Arguably not ‘engineer and spotter’ good like Scott McLaughlin, Lando Norris et al are today. But good enough off dust off most – it not all – comers.

I – of course – still foolishly thought of these Arcade Games as just that, games. And if anyone had tried to tell me that in ‘the future’ proficiency at them (or whatever their equivalent was going to be) would prove just as valid a ‘first step’ on the racing ladder as 6-8 years in karts I would have been like that little kid in the ad for a building supplies company.

“Mate,’ I would have said. “You’re dreaming!”

As it turns out though, I’m the one who is dreaming….of the day I can pick up the Logitech steering wheel and pedal set I put on lay-buy (yes I know, sad but true) just before the Level 4 lockdown kicked in, and join the fun myself!

Sure I still have a (small) mortgage. And though both are now in (or as near as dammit) to their early 20s neither of my kids shows any sign of wanting to leave home and see the world (as I did at the same age).

However with no crippling panel-beater’s bills to pay if I – or anyone else around me – makes a mistake. And no – let’s see – fuel, tyres, accommodation etc etc bills to pay, the cost of competing is going to be absolutely miniscule in comparison to ‘the real thing.’

Perhaps 60 IS the new 40. If it is then I am IN! And if not, then what have I lost?

Give me 2 or 3 months and I’ll report back…complete with notes from my engineer and  spotter – or not as the case may be!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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