We should be talking about trimming out the aero and going for that one brain-out qualifying lap at Indianapolis, or maybe how it felt to be the youngest-ever CART Indy-car winner or one of the three drivers to win in their IndyCar debut. Maybe the satisfaction of backing up that early promise with four IndyCar championships, a win in the Indianapolis 500, two overall sports car wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona—the list of accolades is stunning and still growing. There’s so much you could discuss when you have an exclusive audience with Scott Dixon.
But none of that stuff is on the agenda. We’re at Willow Springs Raceway in California, shooting an “Ignition” episode with a Honda Civic Type R, and Dixon is our special guest. Within minutes the formalities are over and we’re talking about New Zealand and London, about our families, and, of course, about hooning around in front-wheel-drive cars of various flavors in our youth and learning about understeer and (more pertinently) lift-off oversteer the hard way. It’s great fun. Dixon is completely relaxed and in no hurry whatsoever to get the hell out of Rosamond, California, and back to his real life. This might be a PR obligation, but it doesn’t feel like it. He seems to be enjoying hanging out and giving the Type R a right old beating for the camera guys. My mission today is to get to know the car and to watch and learn. Any time you get to be in a car with one of the world’s best drivers is a rare privilege, and I intend to spend a lot of time just enjoying the experience and trying to absorb some of Dixon’s incredible talent via osmosis. Fat chance.
Our radio crackles to life with a simple, “We’re ready. Aaaaand … action,” and Dixon rips through first and second as we approach Turn 3. This is the part of the day the director calls “corners.” Our crew moves from corner to corner, shooting every turn with three cameras and probably two or three times over. Fourteen turns make up the Streets of Willow, so the process is a bit long-winded. But it’s a huge amount of fun, and Dixon and the Civic get quicker and quicker every time we hear the “Action!” cue. It’s also incredibly tough on any car, yet the Type R seems almost impervious.
This Type R is identical in spec to the Automobile Four Seasons long-term loaner right down to the color, and the giant-killer reputation it’s forging is well deserved. The 2.0-liter turbo-four doesn’t zing with the top-end fury of an old VTEC engine, but it’s got so much midrange, not to mention there are still plenty of fireworks if you hang onto each gear until the redline. You certainly feel every bit of its 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. What’s better is that the Type R knows how to use it. There’s a mild bit of torque steer, but it adds to the sense of excitement; think of it as a trait rather than a fault. You never deviate off line. Rather, the car gently wanders just a degree or two around your chosen trajectory.
Understeer? Even on the track there’s not much to speak of, and the helical limited-slip differential is fantastic. If you’re too greedy on the way into a corner and find the front pushing, you need to fight your instinct to back off. Instead, do the opposite. Jump on the gas. The diff locks up, and the nose comes back into line.
Not that Dixon is ever too greedy on the way into the turns. His style is economical, laser-precise, and somehow effortless. He gets the Civic into turns quicker than I thought possible. The forces are brutal, but the inputs are silky, and he always manages the car’s mass beautifully. It barely seems to pitch or roll, and it’s obvious immediately that Dixon’s feel for the tires’ contact patches is uncanny. The best drivers seem to find grip where there should be none and create speed almost from thin air. Dixon does that. You might watch and understand the process he’s engaged in, but if you try to emulate it, you tend to descend into scrappy understeer or simply fly off the track. It’s at once impressive and depressing.
“I remember going up and up and thinking, ‘This is going to hurt.’”
Of course, I have to ask him: “So, erm, what about that crash, hey?” I try to sound casual, but obviously I’m a bit nervous about bringing it up. Cool as a cucumber, Dixon barely bats an eyelash. “Yeah, it was a big one,” he says. Seems he’s a master of understatement too.
In case you haven’t seen it, Dixon had a monster shunt during the 2017 Indianapolis 500. Another driver, Jay Howard, ran wide and tagged the wall on the exit of Turn 1. With a broken front suspension, he had no control over his No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and veered back down the track toward the infield. Dixon was just exiting Turn 1 and had nowhere to go. His Chip Ganassi Honda launched over the back of Howard’s car, the flight turning the car hard left so Dixon was hurtling backward through the air toward the inner guardrail. At the last second the car flipped onto its side and impacted the top of a concrete barrier with the right-hand side of the carbon-fiber monocoque before spinning and tumbling back out toward the racetrack.
“I remember going up and up and thinking, ‘This is going to hurt,’” Dixon recalls. “Then I had the first big impact and thought, ‘I should be OK,’ but then it just went on and on.”
As the whole watching world held its breath, the team would have been terrified, and God only knows how Dixon’s family coped in those split seconds. But he was just in the moment, figuring out if he was going to get out of this one without bad injuries. Somehow, miraculously, he did. But how do you deal with that sort of crash, mentally speaking? “It’s actually pretty easy,” Dixon says nonchalantly. “It’s worse if you have a big crash and it’s your fault. Maybe you don’t know why it happened. That’s tough. But you know what? I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the risk we take, but it hasn’t played on my mind since. Not at all.”
And now he’s in a Civic Type R at Streets of Willow. Is he really having fun? “Ah mate, this is great,” Dixon says. “I’m lovin’ driving this thing. I can’t remember the last time I drove a front-wheel-drive car. Let me think, yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a Honda CRX. I think I was about 16 or 17. It’s been a while.” However long it’s been, Dixon’s muscle memory for front-wheel drivers seems well intact. “To be honest, this is nothing like those cars,” he adds. “Response is fantastic, the way you can arc the car around corners. What really surprises me is there’s no on-throttle understeer, or very little.”
Dixon trails the Type R into corners on the brakes, but the car’s tail doesn’t budge. I comment on how stable the rear end feels. “That’s one thing I remember from my teens,” he says with a smile. “But this doesn’t have the big, loose, high rear feeling of a front-drive car on trail brake. You can drive it in deep on the brakes. Back in my early teens, I was caught out a few times and maybe damaged a few cars. But this is rock solid.”
By now I know Dixon is my sort of guy. He drives cars for a living but also for fun, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 700-hp single-seater doing 230 mph around Indy or a 306-hp, four-door hatchback tackling curves out in the desert. Even better, he sees the Civic’s manual gearbox as a source of joy rather than as tenths lost from a lap time. “Manual’s back, man! I swore as a teenager I’d never drive an automatic,” Dixon recalls. “It’s just so cool and takes me back to when I got into racing. Having that substance and that feel of being attached to this thing and shifting gears and even messing up, y’know?” You don’t have to convince me, brother. I’m a believer.
The crew is almost done, the Type R needs new tires, and there’s a light dusting of gravel where Dixon’s been cutting corners, using every inch of track and a few more. It’s been a blast.
Often these superstar drivers become almost faceless: just another list of stats and facts and numbers. But Dixon is a great guy: funny, relaxed, and full of wonderful stories. No ego, at least not in this setting, plenty of charm, and all smiles. And he’s a car enthusiast to the core. If I run into him again someday, somewhere, I probably won’t talk too much about his career and future aspirations. Sorry. But I bet we’ll chat about that day at Willow Springs in a Honda Civic Type R. Oh, and the Ford GT he couldn’t stop talking about. He should have that by now. Like I said, a proper car enthusiast. He’s won a few races in his time too.
Our 2017 Honda Civic Type R
|MILES TO DATE||9,642|
|PRICE||$34,775 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/306 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||179.4 x 73.9 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||168 mph|