FORT WORTH, TEXAS
Gil de Ferran and Scott Dixon both had monumental weekends at Texas Motor Speedway during the Chevy 500 closer to the Indy Racing League's 2003 IndyCar Series season.
Dixon, the 23-year-old New Zealand-bred driver of Team Target's Panoz G Force/Toyota won his sixth career title by finishing second to de Ferran, the 35-year-old Brazilian who ended his stellar open wheel racing career with pole position, victory and most laps led in his Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota at this fast, steeply banked 1.5-mile oval circuit.
Call it a hand-off, if you want. Or name these results what they are: pure magic. Both drivers had difficulty during the year, to put it mildly.
De Ferran had a major collision with Michael Andretti at Phoenix in the second race of the 16-event campaign, missing round three at Twin Ring Motegi due to a major headache and back problems, and being day-to-day for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, which he won from 10th starting spot in the 33-car field. Every other race this year, though, Gil finished, whether at the top of the heap or not. He finished, and that's what nearly brought him the title.
Dixon and Tony Kanaan crashed while battling for the lead in Japan and both sustained injuries, but that isn't the only adversity the Kiwi had to deal with. Try finishing 16th or worse in five of 16 races; try having the kind of roller coaster year that works well only for those brave souls whose stomachs have the consistency of iron.
Scott started the year in beautiful fashion by winning the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He went on to record two more victories (consecutive wins at Pikes Peak and Richmond) and Scott finished second four times in the last five races of the year. The season was one of feast or famine for Team Target and for Dixon, something de Ferran can understand.
The veteran, who owns two CART championships and his monumental win at Indy this season, also recorded three wins, including victory in the night race at Nashville, the reward being a guitar, something Gil might never use for anything other than ornamentation. Musical talent isn't his forte, as anyone who heard him sing "Take me out to the ball game" this year can attest to.
Gil secured Roger Penske's 100th open wheel win at Team Penske's Nazareth home track in 2000, and it was a long time coming, three years after win #99. The Professor gave Penske his 13th Indy victory after snookering teammate Helio Castroneves late in the race to deny his young teammate three consecutive drinks from the milk bottle. "I love milk," sneered de Ferran in Victory Lane, meaning it. (His sly sense of humor is so infectious. Helio will miss it more than anyone on the racing circuit, I'm sure.)
The day after his Indy win, Gil's son Luke was in the #6 Panoz G Force/Toyota when it was wheeled to the front straight of the seminal 2.5-mile oval for a two-hour photo session every winner must endure. The fact that familyAngela, Anna and Lukemeans so much to Gil, that family is so important to his existence was brought home during this particular trial; in fact, nearly every member of Team Penske whose family was on-site got into the act. It was natural.
This Texas weekend felt like a hand-off from one thinking driver to another. You wouldn't believe a pup like Scott Dixon is in the same league as a Gil de Ferran but just wait! He's on his way. As infectious as de Ferran's humor may be, Scott Dixon also has this sly, dry playful side that gets to team owner Chip Ganassi, a man who has been lucky and/or smart enough to hire some of the best drivers in the American open wheel community who also possess a playful sense of fun.
"The thing I like about Scott as a driver," Chip noted, " is that he's got a great sense of humor but, at the same time he's all business when he's out at the track and in the car. Let's face it, we've had flamboyant drivers and I don't think that's a word you'd use for Scott. But at the end of the day he's all business when it's time to get in the car like the other champions we've had."
Ganassi was talking about the Iceman Dixon, but he could just have easily been Roger Penske, discussing the Professor, the nickname we've given Gil de Ferran over the years for his engineering and testing abilities. Put either one of these guys in the race car and they give at least 100%. Get them off-circuit and they're normal, fun folks.
In Texas, de Ferran nearly did the impossible, coming from 30 points back to win a third championship. The Professor made up 12 points but it just wasn't enough to catch the steady Dixon. He had a tough job when the green flags flew and, at one point Gil was way, way back in 18th spot after driving through the Speedway's grass verge to avoid an accident involving Felipe Giaffone. Dixon, smooth and secure never fell below 12th place during pit stop exchanges. The final tally? Dixon had 507 points; de Ferran owned 489.
This Indy Racing League season is history, but what a year and what a grand finale this was. "I thought it was really cool today," remarked Mike Hull, team manager for Team Target. "The five guys that had a mathematical chance to win the championship raced against each other today. I think that point needs to be emphasized: they raced fair. That's the way they raced all year long."