When you’re barreling around a track at speeds of up 250 miles per hour, you better have the mental and physical makeup of a warrior. And IndyCar driver Scott Dixon has that covered. Coupling mental toughness with triathlete conditioning, the New Zealand native has now secured his third IndyCar Series championship (2003, 2008, 2013) for the Target-Chip Ganassi team. The man with the most prestigious active IndyCar record recently shared his thoughts on success, training, and the rigors of the race with Men’s Fitness.
Men’s Fitness: You’ve had an incredible year with this third win. How would you describe your first series win compared to the latest?
Scott Dixon: Very different, I think. Not that we didn’t necessarily have the appreciation for the first one, but I think we were just a little young and naive and didn’t understand what we had achieved. I was 22 or 23 that year. I think this year felt really special. We had to dig deep and overcome some obstacles, it was very up and down.
MF: How would you describe how it feels to be behind the wheel?
SD: For me it’s just passion and pure love for the sport. I first drove a go-cart at age 7, and it’s a feeling that just comes over you—you want to go faster, go through the corner quicker. Nowadays, I’ve become used to some aspects of racing, but you’re still going 250 miles per hour, so you got to have a lot of respect. Unfortunately it can be quite a dangerous sport. There’s a misconception that you don’t have to be that fit, but some of the corners you’re going through you’re getting up to 3 or 4 G’s loading on the body. The actual bumps and high frequency of vibrations takes a real toll the body. Your heart rate on average in a two-hour race is probably at 160 beats per minute.
MF: How do you train physically for the intensity of the race?
SD: I probably work out 5-6 days of the week. Two hours in the morning, and then 2-3 days a week I’ll also do another two hours in the afternoon. In the winter I do more with weights and building strength, but in the summer when it’s racing season, it’s all cardiovascular. I’ve also picked up training for triathlons.
MF: Do you think triathlons and IndyCar races demand the same mental endurance?
SD: Yes, but there’s different aspects. In a triathlon you’re constantly thinking about how to maintain how your body is feeling, but in racing you train so much so you don’t have to worry about how your body is feeling, you’ve sort of got a clear mind. Racing in the Indianapolis 500 can be three and a half hours long, but you’re on the edge the whole time, so it’s mentally draining.
MF: How do you personally maintain mental acuity during the race?
SD: A lot of it is the training you go through beforehand. Some people are just built a little bit better for the mental strength. I don’t want to blow a trumpet or anything, but I think mental toughness has been a strong part of my racing career. The biggest thing for me is to know when to have race mode on, and when to switch to family and recreational time. You’ve got to keep them as separate as possible, otherwise it becomes too draining.
MF: What drivers have inspired you?
SD: For me, Ayrton Senna was a dominant driver of his time. He had pure passion for the sport. He was one of the guys who turned it into such a physical sport with his training. Kenny Smith, he was a big help for me when I was going through my early teen years in motor racing. I think recently outside of racing, Mo Farah is someone who’s shocked me the most.
MF: How would you define your role in the sport?
SD: It’s a tough question to answer. I would prefer to answer it like this—when I’m done five or 10 years from now, I hope that I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. I think the future is the time to reflect and hope your happy with what you’ve achieved.
MF: Can you tell us about a moment in your career that you think will stick with you forever?
SD: For me, it’s very hard to beat your first time. When I got into the go-cart when I was 7, it was just sheer excitement. It’s so pure at that time (there’s not a whole lot of politics), but you also have milestones when you first get into IndyCar racing. Your first win, your first Indianapolis 500, your first championship. Those are big moments.