ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — Winning an IndyCar race is nothing new for Scott Dixon, particularly this year.
But getting to celebrate as fans cheered him on for the first time all year made his victory Saturday at Road America particularly sweet.
“To see fans and hear fans cheering again was definitely a lot of fun,” the 39-year-old New Zealander said after winning the opening race of a weekend doubleheader.
This marked the third IndyCar event of this pandemic-delayed season — Dixon has won all three of them — and the first to admit fans. Spectators hadn’t been permitted for Dixon’s previous victories in Fort Worth and Indianapolis.
Those fans got the opportunity to watch Dixon’s most improbable triumph of the year.
Dixon was a season-low ninth in qualifying and well off the lead pack for the first half of the race, but he took the lead for good shortly after a caution flag and beat Will Power by 2.5386 seconds. They were followed in order by Alex Palou, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta.
“It was very unexpected,” said Dixon, a five-time season champion for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Dixon is the first IndyCar driver to start a season with at least three consecutive victories since Sebastien Bourdais reeled off four straight to start the 2006 campaign. The only other drivers to open an IndyCar season with at least three straight victories are A.J. Foyt (seven in 1964) and Al Unser (three in 1971). Dixon is the first driver to win three straight races at any point in the season since Simon Pagenaud in 2016.
Saturday’s race took drivers 55 laps around a course that’s just over 4 miles long with 14 turns.
For much of the day, it looked as though Josef Newgarden would win at Road America for the second time in three years.
Newgarden eared the pole position earlier Saturday and was in command for the first half of this race until he stalled coming out of his second pit stop and fell back in the pack. He ended up 14th.
“Our day went from a great to pretty bad pretty quickly,” Newgarden said. “But hey, that’s racing. We just didn’t take advantage of our opportunities today.”
Power had a narrow lead over Dixon when Jack Harvey went off the track to produce a caution flag on the 38th lap. Dixon pulled ahead of Power coming out of the pits on the restart and stayed ahead after two more caution flags.
“Mishap in the pits., had a bit of an issue,” Power said. “Had a wrong gear in the car, too, making it difficult to get a good restart to challenge Dixon.”
The second caution flag came when Conor Daly slid off the course after making contact with Pato O’Ward, knocking Daly out of the race and wrecking his Chevy. The final one came when Dalton Kellett went off course.
Dixon has 49 career victories, putting him behind only Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52).
Road America’s setup made it an ideal venue for IndyCar to start allowing fans. The sprawling, 640-acre layout surrounding the course allows fans to practice social distancing and roam the property rather than crowding into a grandstand.
“Since we’ve been here before, we know there’s plenty of room,” said Jason Shelley of Indianapolis, who said he usually attends four or five IndyCar races each year. “It’s kind of like watching a race in a state park, so this is the one place where I feel comfortable and safe because I know I can get away from people. I’m not going to be stacked on top of people. That’s why we came.’’
Steve Lemon, a fan from Kankakee, Illinois, who usually attends about three races a year, said that “if it had been an oval, we wouldn’t have gone.’’
Fans received temperature checks at gates and received masks and hand sanitizer as they entered.
Wearing a mask was encouraged but not required, and a stroll through along the Road America property indicated the majority of spectators were spending at least part of the time unmasked.
“All the staff and drivers and everybody are wearing masks, but I don’t think the fans are quite as good about it,” said Jim Cossaart, a spectator from Bristol, Vermont. “Human nature, I guess.’’
IndyCar also plans to have spectators next weekend for a doubleheader in Iowa, where the oval track has grandstands. IndyCar is hoping fans will fill 50% of the speedway’s capacity for the Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23.