By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Scott Dixon likes to says he races for free and gets paid for all the other stuff drivers must do, such as interviews and schmoozing with sponsors, meaning this should have been the most enjoyable week ever for the New Zealander in the lead-up to an Indianapolis 500.
There have not been as many of those obligations to juggle during the run-in to Sunday's rescheduled Indy 500, with the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating most of the usual distractions.
Without fans the mood around the sprawling Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been subdued.
The atmosphere in the city that bills itself as "The Racing Capital of the World" has been equally flat with none of the non-stop parties that fill the streets and campgrounds around the 2.5-mile oval.
As IndyCar's top earner ($2.5-3.0 million a year according to Racer.com) the 40-year-old Dixon is well compensated for performing the tasks that come with the job but this year, aside from interviews and a few other unavoidable commitments, he has been free to focus on driving.
But even the "Iceman", as Dixon is known, could do with a few diversions when it comes to the Indy 500.
"I do miss it (the fans)," Dixon told Reuters in a phone call from Indianapolis. "Trust me the driving is what I really love and I love that portion of it but Indianapolis is so special.
"But honestly, without fans, without partners we would not have races full stop. That's what really makes the Indianapolis 500 is the people.
"Seeing the transformation of the city it does feel very different and does feel kind of sad. It is very eerie.
"All of us have missed it a lot. It is very unique and very different from any of the other races we go to."
PROFESSIONALISM AND ATTENTION
For Dixon, the dinners, sponsor appearances, parades and charity events can be as draining and mentally tough to prepare for as the race itself.
The affable Kiwi, however, meets them with the same professionalism and attention he employs on the track where he has established himself as one of motor racing's very best.
Having spent almost his entire career with Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon won the Indy 500 in 2008, has claimed five IndyCar drivers' titles and is in position to collect a sixth.
Victories in the first three races this season pushed his career haul to 49, leaving him four shy of passing Mario Andretti (52) for second on the all-time list.
Despite his accomplishments and the dangers of his profession, Dixon has no plans to retire but is as motivated to win as he was when he first climbed into an Indy Lights car in 1999.
"If anything, for me, it becomes more (motivation)," said Dixon, who will start Sunday second on the grid between pole sitter Marco Andretti and Japan's Takuma Sato, winner of the 2017 Indy 500. "I don't know why that is, I don't feel like I am close to being done but I do think that at this point you are seeing there are less years than when I started.
"The motivation is driven by the competition of the field and the people that you race plus the team.
"The biggest thing for me is every day is different and not going in there thinking you know everything.
"Every situation is different and I think that keeps it quite fresh."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Clare Fallon)