Dan Wheldon glanced up as Target Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon drove past on his motorbike last week at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway with a smile pasted on what used to be a perpetually dour face.
"Who the heck is that guy?" Wheldon said, shaking his head. "It's hard to recognize him these days."
Dixon, a 27-year-old New Zealander, has been known in the past by several nicknames: among them, "Iceman" and "Grumpy."
When he won the IndyCar Series title in 2003, his first year in the circuit after two seasons in CART -- Champ Car's predecessor -- Dixon often appeared to be in pain when talking with the media or signing autographs.
He was far more renowned for a grimace than a grin.
All that has changed, apparently thanks to his fiancee, Emma Davies, a slim, dark-haired beauty from England.
"I guess I have changed a lot," Dixon said last Sunday after a win at Sonoma that boosted him into a four-point lead over Dario Franchitti with just two races left in the 2007 season.
"I think Emma has been a great friend and definitely we have a great relationship," he added, smiling. "We're getting married in February and I think she has changed me a bit."
How has he changed?
"I'm probably a little more outgoing," Dixon explained. "Being English -- they like to talk -- she's very, very outgoing. She's just very personable. That's changed the views ... maybe the outlook on life, all kinds of stuff. I guess good things have rubbed off her onto me."
The change in attitude has coincided with some big gains on the track -- perhaps more related to a change of equipment than his newfound contentment.
After Dixon and the entire Ganassi team struggled in 2004 and 2005 with an underpowered Toyota engine, there was big improvement last year after everyone in the series switched to Honda power. Dixon won two races and finished a solid fourth in the points after running 10th and 13th the two previous years.
For most of this season, Dixon has been running at or near the front, with only a couple of slip-ups. The victory at Sonoma gives him a sweep of the three natural terrain road courses on the schedule -- Infineon, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio -- all part of his four wins in the past six races.
Since finishing second to Franchitti on June 30 at Richmond, and trailing the Scotsman by 65 points, Dixon has been the hottest driver in the series, while Franchitti has begun to falter after an almost magical start to the season.
"I knew Dario's luck was likely to change," Dixon said. "There were just too many things going his way. But I'm not going to get too sure of myself, either, because things can turn around so quickly in this sport."
If he does get through this week's race at Belle Isle in Detroit and the season-finale Sept. 9 at Chicagoland and win another title, it will definitely be more fun -- although no more gratifying.
"It feels a lot different this time around," Dixon said. "I think in 2003 it was a bit of a surprise. The performance that we had, going out winning the first race, having three victories, then I think five or six DNFs (did not finish). It was a very different season.
"This year, if you had that situation, you wouldn't even be in the top five. It's definitely a lot more on the edge this year, a lot more hectic. I think the fact that everybody has the same car, the same engine, makes it very different."
So, what if things don't go so well the next two weeks and he doesn't win that second championship?
"Well, then I guess we'd have to try to win it next year," Dixon said -- smiling, naturally.