Commentary

Dominant Dixon not such a good thing for attention-starved IRL

Scott Dixon is like a surgeon on the racetrack. He slices and dices with intricate precision. He wins, too, picking up his third victory of 2008 Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Dixon's one problem: He doesn't sell tickets, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: June 8, 2008, 12:54 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Scott DixonStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesScott Dixon, rear, and Helio Castroneves finished 1-2 under caution at Texas Motor Speedway.

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Scott Dixon, the calm and cool Kiwi, won again on Saturday night. He is the studious master of his domain, a brilliant surgeon in a race car and possibly the best IndyCar driver in more than two decades.

Only one problem. Dixon doesn't sell tickets. With all due respect to his lovely new bride, Dixon is missing a racing version of sex appeal.

He's a little too quiet, a little too icy and little too, well, normal.

The IndyCar Series was six laps away from getting that wow-factor winner in the Bombardier Learjet 550. No, not Danica. Her teammate, Marco Andretti, was out front before Dixon got inside and zoomed by him.

Moments later, Andretti's night ended in a nasty collision with Ryan Hunter-Reay. That made for the second time in a week the race ended with a huge buzz kill -- a yellow flag.

This 228-lap event produced the typical wheel-to-wheel thrills at Texas Motor Speedway, but ended with five laps behind the pace car.

The IndyCar Series needs to take a hint from NASCAR on this one and think about a green-white-checkered overtime finish.

"I was thinking about that," said Helio Castroneves, who finished second. "I definitely had the car to make something happen. But we can't compare ourselves to what NASCAR does. It would be a mess."

So the 83,000 fans in the TMS grandstands were left with a dud of a finish.

"I saw some fans walk out before the checkered flag," said Chip Ganassi, the wining team owner. "It's disappointing. They come to see an exciting finish. I understand differences between Indy cars and stock cars and why some people say we can't do it. But there has to be a way that's fair to do it for everybody."

Along with the coasting finish, the crowd got a ho-hum winner.

This is no rap on Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champion. The man is a joy to watch on a racetrack. He's a well-oiled machine that never needs maintenance, winning three times this season and leading more than 50 percent of the laps.

But it's a bad time for Dixon to reach his peak as a racer because this is a special moment for the newly merged IndyCar Series.

The league is trying to capitalize on the unification with Champ Car, the first time in 12 years the two leagues have run as one, but it needs a few more wins by the drivers the casual fans know.

Patrick's victory in Japan helped, but it happened an ocean away late at night and rookie Graham Rahal won in March at St. Petersburg.

It helped the Indy 500 have its biggest crowd in a decade, but the recognizable drivers and the merger still haven't sunk in overall.

This is Dixon's show and for the true open-wheel fans, that's a wonderful thing. The New Zealand driver is as technically sound as they come, a calculating racer that outsmarts and outdrives his opponents.

But the series could use a few more victories by Patrick, Andretti and Rahal. And the fence-climbing Castroneves, the TV hero from "Dancing with the Stars," has yet to win this season.

It's just bad luck for the IRL, and on Saturday, the finish was bad luck for TMS president Eddie Gossage. The crowd was down 3,000 from 2007, a bit of a surprise to Gossage with this league on the rise.

"It's still the biggest crowd to see IndyCar racing outside of the Indy 500," Gossage said. "But attendance has dropped almost 20 percent since 2005. It's clear inserting a race between Indy and Texas had an effect.

"We spent more money on advertising and promotion this year than ever before, but it wasn't enough. We love IndyCar racing and hope to get the IRL's help in turning the trend around."

Gossage doesn't like the fact that the IndyCar Series races at Milwaukee the week after the Indy 500, one week before coming to Texas. He feels the league would be better served by promoting the TMS event for two weeks.

It's a secondary argument to the immediate problem. The most recognizable stars in the league need to win, or at last give Dixon a bit more competition.

Some might say the most popular driver in NASCAR -- Dale Earnhardt Jr -- isn't winning either, but that's a much different situation. And NASCAR has its resident villain in bad-boy Kyle Busch winning at a record pace.

Dixon is no villain. He's as nice a guy as you could ever meet, but that doesn't bring attention to the league.

Gossage and others involved in the series are suffering though a bit of a frustration factor. They are anxious to see the IndyCar Series take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.

Give it time. The average fan is slow to recognize change, but it will happen. Andretti clearly is on the verge of winning on the high-speed ovals and give Rahal a year and he'll also be competitive on the big tracks.

Castroneves will win his share and Patrick will race near the front most of the time.

But for now, the unassuming Dixon has everyone covered.

If only the league could make him a little more emotional and dramatic.

When you're trying to gain attention, every little bit helps.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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