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Mind of a Motorhead: Scott Dixon uses thrill-seeking personality to be calm in chaos

Dr. Kenneth Carter, Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, studies thrill seekers. Carter puts six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to the test to see if he can discover the secret to success.

(Editor’s note: Mind of a Motorhead is a new series in which motorsports athletes from various disciplines (such as IndyCar’s Scott Dixon) will be analyzed according to surveys of their personalities. Series host Dr. Ken Carter, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, writes below on what he learned about Dixon in the inaugural episode.)

Scott Dixon is a six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 winner of the legendary Indy 500, a race in which he drives his race car more than 220 mph in a field of 33 drivers, a race in which the cost of an accident can be disastrous.

Certainly athletes such as Dixon train for years for these events. But many of these elite athletes possess something else that helps them succeed during these high-stakes events: Their personality.

As the inaugural guest on NBC Sports’ Mind of a Motorhead series (watch the video above), Dixon spoke with me about his personality both on and off the track.

Dixon, who won last Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway and has the IndyCar points lead through four races, has a personality trait that helps him to focus in highly chaotic environments just like the ones you’ll see on the track.

It’s called a high sensation-seeking personality, and it’s a trait with which I long have been fascinated by as a psychologist. What’s amazing is that some high sensation-seeking individuals experience less stress and are fearless and calm in the face of danger.

This explains why driving 220 mph or bungee jumping “feels nice” to him rather than terrifying. Dixon told me about a time when he went bungee jumping. “Trust me” he said. “When you do a bungee jump, the hardest thing is actually stepping off. Then it actually feels nice when it works out.”

Dixon and other high sensation seekers know that being calm and focused in chaotic experiences is helpful on the track because it’s not just about being fast.

Dixon VL Skibinski Texas

Scott Dixon celebrates after winning the Genesys 300 IndyCar race last Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Joe Skibinski

“You’re never going to win a championship by crashing your way there, or being the fastest car on the track every weekend,” Dixon said. “A lot of it is about planning and then putting in the hard work and really understanding what you’re getting yourself into. It’s not just who’s the craziest. It’s a little bit of crazy and then working through the process. So, yeah, it’s a fun combo.”

But his thrill-seeking personality creeps into every aspect of his life and influences the way he interacts with other people. When he’s hyper-focused and in “racing mode,” Dixon admits that he’s “not the most friendliest person … but it’s more that I’m consumed with what I’m thinking about.” This thrill-seeking personality extends to the fact that he can take only about two weeks off before he’s ready to be back at work again. Or in what he eats: “I’ll try anything once. I might not try it again, but I’ll try anything once.”

So when you’re watching Scott Dixon and wondering how he can handle the pressures and dangers of competition, just remember: For some like him, chaos and intensity are secret weapons of success.

Curious about your score on Sensation Seeking? You can take a test at this link or read more about sensation seeking in my book, “Buzz! Inside the Minds of Thrill Seekers, Daredevils and Adrenaline Junkies”.

You can watch the video above or by clicking here or you also can watch by subscribing to the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel.