INDIANAPOLIS — When Alexander Rossi won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 back in 2016, most said then that a worse winner couldn’t have won. See, everyone just kind of assumed that Rossi was only using the NTT IndyCar Series as a stepping stone back to a seat in Formula One.
With arguably the biggest race in the Indy 500 history being run, to have a driver that we thought then had no regard for the race itself nor a future in the series longterm reach victory lane, well it wouldn’t bode well for the series.
How can you promote the race when the winner didn’t care to be here? Some chastised him for not being emotional enough following such a big win too.
But, as we sit here today, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
Alexander Rossi practices his No. 27 Honda during practice for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 – INDYCAR Media Site
Rossi, fresh off a new contract, is in his fifth Indy Car season. As he could have commanded some serious attention to go back overseas and finish what he started, he has shown no interest and this new contract shows just how much he values racing here in the United States.
The 2016 race actually worked out in Indy Car’s favor more than anyone could have known then.
It wasn’t that Rossi didn’t care for his ‘500 win, he just didn’t know what to expect. The Indy 500 wasn’t something that Rossi chased. When he was a teenager, he moved overseas to pursue an F1 seat. When he was little, his family would take up early on Sunday mornings and watch F1 races, not Indy Car.
He grew up in northern California, NOT Indiana. So, we should forgive him for now showing as much emotion because he was very emotional, he just didn’t know what to expect.
He’s honest when he says that he didn’t think he had any shot of winning that race that year. When he crossed the yard of bricks first, he knew his life would change.
“Everyone talks about like when Tony (Kanaan) won and Will (Power) won, they’ve been trying so long and that type of emotion came out and that is obviously a real thing,” Rossi said on Thursday. “But, for the guys that have won and gotten a taste of it, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until you’ve won, you don’t realize how amazing it is. How special an event that this is to win. Every time that a year goes by and you know someone else will get to go do all that stuff that you get to go do, you just think ‘oh this sucks.’ So for sure it adds fuel to the fire every year that goes by.”
When told about how Rick Mears got emotional after each one he won, Rossi said, “oh for sure because you realize every year you come here, you realize how challenging it is to get it done. How all the pieces of the puzzle have to fall in place. Some are in your control and some aren’t. It’s a pretty magical part when it all happens.”
Now, it’s in his blood. He doesn’t want to leave. When someone wins the Indy 500 and it’s not him, Rossi gets genuinely jealous, so much so, he has to take a break off social media.
“It’s not hard as all,” Rossi said about the ‘500. “Once you get a taste of it — this one is weird. I feel like other races you win, it kind of — of course you would happily win again, but this one is like you get a small taste of it, and the desire ramps up I think even more, and you don’t want anyone else to be able to experience that and kind of get to celebrate it for the next 12 months, because that’s the special thing about this race is there’s — every couple of months there’s something that’s kind of reminding you of your accomplishment and ceremonial things, and I think that’s very cool.
“I remember the year — 2017 when Takuma (Sato) won, I just stopped looking at his social media because I was jealous. It’s definitely — the desire to win again is pretty strong. So it’s not hard to come back and want to do it again.”
Rossi, has been quick in his other four chances too. He finished in the top 10 in 2017 and charged from the last row to a top five finish in 2018. Last year, he narrowly missed out on a second win in coming home in a close second to Simon Pagenaud.
Before the final caution that flew with 23 laps remaining in last year’s race, Rossi thought that he was sitting in a pretty good position to earn his second career ‘500 win, both coming in the last four years.
See, Rossi knew that he was getting better fuel mileage. Pagenaud, pit for the final time with 33 laps-to-go. His first stint, he made it only 32 laps. That’s about all Pagenaud was making it on a run.
So, for him to go the final 33 laps without pitting, it would be close.
Rossi, hit pit lane for the final time two laps later. He was consistently getting much better fuel mileage than Pagenaud all day and knew that he could make it to the end. So, when Rossi took over the lead with 23 laps-to-go after closing in and passing Pagenaud, he thought that if this race went caution free, he was in the catbirds seat.
Unfortunately, Graham Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, Felix Rosenqvist, Zach Veach and Charlie Kimball all crashed in Turn 3 bringing out the fourth and final caution of the day. Now, Pagenaud no longer had to save fuel. The caution meant he could ride it out until the end.
“That last yellow really hurt us because we were doing a lot better on fuel mileage than he was, so that was the first kind of nail in the proverbial coffin,” said Rossi after a runner-up finish. “We didn’t have the speed out front I mean, I was flat for the last 15 laps, and there’s not much more you can do.
“I mean, it was pretty inevitable. I mean, I think you saw on the last restart, like he just drove by us. There was the opportunity there to get the lead. I had been working on it for 12, 13 laps, and it finally came, and I didn’t have a choice, I just had to hope that maybe he would lose so much behind me and that Takuma (Sato) or Josef (Newgarden) or whatever would get him, and I would be able to have enough of a cushion for the final two laps. But I passed him in 1 and he was straight back by me into Turn 1, so there was nothing I could do.”
That one still stings for Rossi as he thinks about that race even more than his 2016 win.
“To this day I still haven’t watched and Indy 500 from start to finish that I’ve competed in,” said Rossi. “I mean, I still think about the 2019 finish more of the 2016 win because it’s more recent or maybe it’s because it sucks to finish second. It’s a horrible feeling especially when it’s a second place for when you know you got up there trying to do something wild.
“Like in 2016, if we finished second, that’s a total different emotion. To have a car to potentially win and you come up short is tough because it’s so hard around here that puts you in that position. It takes so many factors and elements that puts you up there to win the Indianapolis 500. You never know if you’re going to have it again. When you see that opportunity and it gets away from you, it’s hard to swallow.”
He says what makes this race so special is that it takes perfection to win.
“Yeah everything has to go right,” the California native continued. “Who would have thought that the strategy that we defaulted to after pit stop problems in ’16 would have been the one to have won the race. There’s no predicting it. There’s 33 cars that have a full and equal part to win this thing on Sunday. Pit stops are going to be, I mean each year there’s a little bit more of a track position race over years past because the competition gets better and it gets hotter, that sort of thing. So I think that any sort of mistake on pit lane is going to take the race from you.”
Rossi, has won the top events in Indy Car. He’s a two time Long Beach winner. He’s won at Watkins Glen. He’s won at Pocono. He’s won at Mid-Ohio. It’s just that he’s come to find out that Indy means a lot more than anything.
For a driver we all thought initially didn’t care, well he does. He cares just as much, if not more than anyone else.