One of the closest relationships racing drivers can have is with their race engineer. When a driver and engineer are on the same metaphorical wavelength and their respective desires to win are in sync, that relationship often bears fruit in the form of race wins and championships.
Such has been the case for Scott Dixon and Chris Simmons, his lead engineer with Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon won his fifth NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2018 while Simmons engineered his fifth as well and second with Dixon.
Simmons was a racer himself, climbing the junior open-wheel ranks to as high as Indy Lights from 1995-98 before putting a mechanical engineering degree to use as a race engineer. He worked for Andretti Autosport before switching to Chip Ganassi Racing as an assistant engineer, and was then promoted to lead engineer for Dan Wheldon in 2008. Simmons was the engineer when Dario Franchitti collected three consecutive NTT IndyCar Series championships from 2009-11 and a victory in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
Following Franchitti’s retirement after the 2013 season, Simmons was engineer for Tony Kanaan in 2014 and then moved to Dixon’s car in 2015. The pairing yielded immediate success with the thrilling NTT IndyCar Series title in 2015 – when Dixon won over Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker – and the second crown last year.
Simmons believes Dixon may not be the fastest driver over the course of a single lap, but that the New Zealander’s overall race pace and excellent fuel mileage he derives pays significant dividends. In their four years together, Dixon and Simmons have teamed for nine race wins and been the model of consistency. The No. 9 PNC Bank Honda finished in the top six in all but two of last year’s 17 races, the key to claiming the championship.
“Scott in particular is really good in the races,” Simmons said. “He’s so calm and has a very easy time adapting his style to what the car needs as the tires degrade, as the racetrack changes, as the traffic changes, and that’s probably what makes him more successful than anything.”
While Dixon is renown for his cool demeanor, the driver admits his engineer is known to wear emotions on his sleeve when it doesn’t go as planned on track.
“With Chris, the funny thing is, you know immediately when he’s not happy,” Dixon said. “He doesn’t hide that stuff well, so I think that goes a long way and I think his rawness is good. It’s much similar to Chip’s rawness, too, where if you’re doing something that they don’t think is right or they think you can do better, then you immediately know.
“I think, especially in our game, it’s a race against time,” Dixon added. “That needs to happen, but I think Chris and I have a very good understanding. It’s always nice to work with an engineer that has a racing background to help understand the things that are maybe unique to what a car does.”
Dixon didn’t take the points lead last season until winning the ninth race of the season, the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Starting with that triumph, Dixon managed six podium finishes in the final nine races – including a win at the Honda Indy Toronto and a miraculous recovery to finish fifth in the Grand Prix of Portland after being caught but undamaged in a first-lap pileup.
“All things considered, we got away pretty lucky there and we were certainly counting our lucky stars after that race,” Simmons admitted. “My dad told me many years ago that racing has the highest of highs and lowest of lows. When you go into a race with Scott Dixon, you always know you’re going to have a chance to win.”
While the 2018 title was gratifying and the team took the time to celebrate it, Simmons said thoughts quickly moved to defending the crown in 2019.
“It doesn't take too long after the last race is over to start thinking about the new season,” he said, “and kick off the projects that probably you’ve already been thinking about during the season to make the cars faster and more reliable and to get more points than all of our competitors.”
Dixon ranked eighth of the 25 drivers competing this week at INDYCAR Spring Training, the two-day test at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. As usual, his effort was stealthy, running mostly unnoticed and within a quarter of a second of being in the top three. Dixon now takes aim on becoming the first NTT IndyCar Series to win back-to-back championships since Franchitti – also with Simmons as the engineer.
The first race of the 2019 season is the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network have live coverage beginning at 1 p.m. ET.