It’s early February, about a month before the start of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and Alexander Rossi is contemplating the most important decision of his young career.
Almost seven years have passed since the northern California native uprooted to Great Britain with dreams of becoming a permanent fixture in Formula One, the world’s premier grand prix series. Things started off well for Rossi, earning a FIA Super License – a necessary qualification to drive in F1 – but, after spending the majority of his time as a reserve, it was evident his career was in danger of stalling. Rossi knew he needed to entertain the idea of looking for other racing opportunities, one of which came in late 2015, when Andretti Autosport reached out about potentially driving an IndyCar full-time.
It was a lot to consider for Rossi, whose sole focus had long been racing in Europe. For the better part of a decade, he’d pumped his heart and passion into F1, gaining a wealth of experience, but he knew the opportunity presented by Andretti Autosport was something special and offered a wealth of positives.
Despite the risk involved, it seemed like the right resolution was to return to the United States.
“It was not an easy decision at all,” Rossi, 25, claimed. “We immediately felt comfortable with Andretti Autosport and [owner] Michael [Andretti] and that entire organization – and how that team is run. I couldn’t think of a better place to drive for. That was a very key factor of making the final decision. I don’t know if the same decision would’ve been made if it was necessarily with a different team.”
A decision of such magnitude often comes with significant pressure or regret but Rossi’s mind was quickly put to ease at the thought of competing for one of the most recognizable names in racing, alongside experienced drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti. But IndyCar offered a variety of new challenges for Rossi, the biggest of which was conquering the oval track.
ADJUSTING TO INDYCAR AS A ROOKIE
The idea of racing around an oval was always somewhat foreign to Rossi. As a teenager, Rossi was drawn to road courses, where he was able to be his best –and gain notoriety. Unlike F1, however, IndyCar offered both road and oval circuits – four of which were slated for Rossi’s rookie campaign. It was a massive adjustment for Rossi, who admitted he’d only ever seen one oval raceway – Phoenix International Speedway, a one-mile track – in his life, so it certainly put him at a disadvantage.
“You need to be versatile and you need to be able to adapt and change,” Andretti Autosport owner and IndyCar legend Michael Andretti admitted. “That’s something some guys can do and some guys have problems with – but Alex seemed to adapt very well to all of the circuits, which was good.”
Almost every aspect of IndyCar was new to Rossi, from the tracks, to the cars, to the series. It can take a significant amount of time for drivers to get accustomed to its intricacies, which is why a majority of drivers make their way through the Road To Indy developmental program or Indy Lights – IndyCar’s minor league – to gain a better understanding of the series. Rossi didn’t have that option and with about a month of preparation leading up to the season, he had to hit the ground running and he continued to learn as the season progressed – especially when it came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I was just trying to take it one day at a time and improve each day and try to get better on understanding all of the intricacies that go along with driving at [IMS],” Rossi said.
PULLING OFF A MIRACLE
The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race – and one of the biggest sporting events – in the world. Add in the fact that last year marked the 100th Running of the Indy 500 and it’s no wonder why the excitement level was through the roof and more than 300,000 spectators packed the bleachers to take in “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” It was a star-studded affair, with Lady Gaga, Chris Pine and many more looking on to see who would be next – who would be immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
The month of May is dedicated solely to racing at Indianapolis, and while Rossi had never seen the track in person, he made sure to make the most of his time on the track, despite not expecting to win. Rossi and his Andretti Autosport team went into it like any other race – looking to maximize the result.
About halfway through, it seemed like a disappointing finish was in Rossi’s future, as the blue and yellow No. 98 Napa Racing car was near the back of the field of 33 drivers. His team needed to come up with a plan and come up with it quick, otherwise Rossi was looking at his seventh straight finish in double digits. Just then, Bryan Herta – co-owner of Rossi’s team – passed along a near impossible strategy and if they were able to accomplish it, they’d have a shot at kissing the bricks and drinking the milk.
“We were kind of buried deep in the field and realizing that we were going to have to look at doing something a little differently, if we were going to have a chance at winning this thing,” Herta remembered. “The conversation I had mid-race – I think around lap 106 – with Alexander, I told him we’re going to make it on one less stop than everyone else, along with the fuel number we had to make and what we had to try and do. Once we set that course we had decided, come hell or high water, we were going to ride that horse all the way and wherever it took us is where we’re going to end up.”
To achieve success with such a strategy is comparable to hitting the lottery. It can really only be done if all of the necessary contributing factors go exactly according to plan. IndyCar features a wide array of technological features, one of which is the ability to use real-time telemetry to measure the fuel consumption in the vehicle, down to the tenth – sometimes even hundredth – of a gallon. Herta’s crew constantly gathered information and found there were two probable outcomes to the strategy.
“The worst we got was we were actually two laps short [of the finish line] on fuel and the best we got was half a lap – half a lap from the finish,” Herta said. “So, at no point did we ever really have enough fuel to get to the end. I guess the feeling was if everyone else had to pit, we’d be able to slow down enough in those last couple of laps to hopefully make up the difference that we needed.”
Rossi was definitely on board with his team’s strategy, knowing there was little to lose. Pulling off something of this magnitude would prove to be a defining moment for both he and Andretti Autosport, though Rossi admits he never actually expected cross the finish line, let alone in first place.
“When [Herta] suggested it, I was totally for it,” Rossi remembered. “It’s hard to explain, really, the fuel mileage we had to make and how aggressive it was. We wanted to believe we could do it but reality has to take a driver’s seat at some point – and we all kind of thought we were going to run out. I never really got too amped up about the fact that I thought I could win, because I legitimately was just waiting for the engine to turn off at some point in those last two or three laps.”
As Rossi’s team projected, his vehicle ran out of fuel with half a lap remaining, at which point he reaped the benefits of a significant lead from not pitting and coasted to victory. He made it around the track for a victory lap until his car completely stopped at turn four and had to be towed to Victory Lane.
“If it was one more lap, we were going to finish like 28th or something,” Herta said with a laugh. “Some races, where you might have a strategy that can secure you a top five or top six finish – that’s a good result. At Indianapolis, you look at that one a little bit differently and that’s probably what pushed us to kind of adopt a little bit of an off-book strategy because that one, it really is all about trying to win.”
THE AFTERMATH OF HISTORY
“My memory of crossing the yard of bricks to Sunday evening is patchy at best,” Rossi joked.
Complete shock came over Rossi, Herta and the rest of his team as they enjoyed the traditions that came with Victory Lane. At times, it was a little overwhelming for Rossi, who wasn’t quite aware of everything that came with winning the Indianapolis 500. And now, it’s just kind of a blur.
“There are very key moments that I remember but, I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the whole victory celebrations and the traditions, a lot of it I don’t remember. I remember from pictures and watching it back but actually being there in the moment is a little bit fuzzy.”
Rossi received a fair amount of criticism from the sport’s purists for the lack of emotion he showed after winning the biggest racing event on the planet, as they were expecting jumping and screaming. It was on the heels of accomplishing the impossible and, as Herta recalled, just speaks to Rossi’s demeanor.
“I loved his reaction after the race – I really did, because it was 100-percent honest. He wasn’t showboating for the cameras, he was more shocked and trying to get his head around what had just happened. When I got to him, the first thing he said was, ‘I don’t understand what just happened.’ Maybe it wasn’t the reaction some other people would’ve had but I liked that he wasn’t trying to cover it up or act differently than he was feeling at the time. He was really just trying to process it.”
A NEW INDIANAPOLIS LEGEND
Getting re-acclimated to life in the United States was easier for Rossi than adjusting to IndyCar.
The decision Rossi made 14 months ago was the best thing that could happen to his career and although he walked away from his dream of racing in F1, he’s made new dreams in Indianapolis. Earlier this year, he purchased a home in the city’s limits, proving he’s committed to building an IndyCar career. It’s the first time he’s lived in the Midwest, a much different culture from London.
While he still spends winters in sunny California, he’s enjoyed his time living in the Midwest and feels that it’s important to be close to the sport that’s given so much to him – a sport he now loves.
“It’s a great city, one that I really truly enjoy,” said Rossi. “I have a place here now and I’m investing quite a bit of time in just staying here and just kind of building a life and a career in Indianapolis and it’s going well so far. It’s important for me to be with the team. With that being said, I think California will always be home – that’s where I grew up and that’s where most of my immediate family is.”
Rossi has yet to settle into his home and add his own touch, but, at the rate he’s going, he might just need to expand if he continues to win trophies and bottles of milk.
Despite two average finishes so far this season, Rossi hopes to remain consistent and believes the change in aero kits in 2018 will level the playing field. He certainly has the ambition, and the potential, to become the next face of IndyCar.
“He’s got a good shot at a great career in IndyCar, you know,” said Andretti. “I expect him to be part of IndyCar for a long time. I think he really enjoys it, I think he’s a great ambassador for it and, hopefully, he’ll be driving for us for a long time.”
No matter how his career continues to progress, the city of Indianapolis will never forget Rossi.
The 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Penngrade Motor Oil is Sunday, May 28.