Rossi Long Beach feature, his thoughts going in and an interesting philosophy behind pit selections

Alexander Rossi had a very frustrating season in 2021 to which included a sixth-place finish in Long Beach. He led no laps that day. Same last year despite a Fast Six starting spot. Being held up on the first stint and a slow second stop left him to 8th in the end. Now, he’s heading to the west coast with a new team and one that looked stout on the streets of St. Pete last month. Rossi even managed a top 5 finish that day. How much of that can translate over to this weekend in the second street course event of the season?

“They are different,” Rossi admitted. “I think St. Pete’s borderline getting to the point where it’s almost a road course, it’s so smooth and the grip level is what it is. I think you definitely take a little bit of a different approach there than you do other street courses.

“Yeah, there are obviously some similarities. I think as a whole, obviously I didn’t drive the car last year, but I think the team has taken a step forward in terms of the street course program. I think Chevrolet has made monumental steps, especially coming from 2021, their evolution of ’22, then again a step this year.

“I think it’s going to be the normal competitive obviously qualifying and race. I think your normal participants are going to be fighting for pole. It’s going to take perfect execution from everyone and exciting to see how it shakes out.”

Does that give Rossi the confidence to see if the old Rossi at Long Beach can make a dominating return?

“I think they had a huge focus on the bottom-end drivability side of things,” Rossi told me of the difference between Chevrolet and Honda on street courses. “Even when it was a challenge, they were still obviously very successful. Even when it was difficult in ’21, they were still winning races.

“Again, it’s very hard to have that big of a difference when the engine architecture is similar or the same, and the rules have been around for so long, everyone kind of follows to the same point.

“But, yes, there are still subtle differences. It’s kind of about maximizing the strengths and weaknesses of each engine, right? Honda might go about that a different way than Chevy does. For us as drivers, me making the transition from one to the other, you’ve got to understand the areas that the Chevy is working in a better range, and you got to focus on those areas to make sure you maximize the performance available.”

Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in a dominating victory in 2018. He followed that up with leading 80 of 85 laps a year later and won by 20.2359-seconds.

We didn’t come to Long Beach in 2020 and when we were back in 2021, his teammate Colton Herta stole the show.

Can he recapture that magic again this weekend with a new team?

“Yeah, I mean, for sure we’re two races, but also only two races, right? It’s still early days,” he says.

“I think the entire atmosphere and the positivity within the team is obvious from the outside. I think the cohesiveness that they were able to keep and also the continuity of adding a third car, the people we’ve talked about many times, it’s a testament to everyone there from the top all the way to the bottom.

“It’s a real privilege and joy to be part of that team every single week. I think we’re only going to get stronger as time goes on.”

Rossi enters Long Beach too with some fire burning inside. The 31-year-old felt like he had a race winning car in Texas, but was taken out of contention early on after an early race pit stop that saw he and his former car that is now being driven by Kyle Kirkwood made contact. Rossi was coming out of his pit stall when Kirkwood was coming into his.

Rossi was given a penalty for an unsafe release. To make matters worse, he had damage that cost him several laps in the pits for repair. To add insult to injury, after the race was over, INDYCAR changed the penalty from an unsafe release to avoidable contact which in turn pretty much placed the blame squarely on Rossi’s shoulders.

He didn’t agree. Still doesn’t. But that’s beside the point.

He’s ready to stick it to the field on Sunday. This weekend, Rossi has a better pit stall as he’s in stall No. 3. That’s behind Scott Dixon and in front of Josef Newgarden. While he expects to be fighting with both for the win this weekend, he also has the comfort of having his teammates in front and behind of Dixon and Newgarden too.

“Yeah, I mean, it really depends on the track,” Rossi told me of pit stall selections. “For example, Long Beach, you want to be towards the front. I assume everyone knows, but if you don’t know, it goes in order of qualifying. For example, Felix got to pick first at Long Beach based on Texas, then down the qualifying order.

“For Long Beach it’s important to be in the front in terms of pit selection just so that when you’re leaving to go to practice, qualifying sims, whatever, you have as much clear track in front of you as possible.

“For the ovals it’s a pretty big advantage to have an open in just because of the way the cross weight is set up, you can carry more speed into the pit box. On a track where we have a lot of cars and a small pit lane, at Mid-Ohio or Toronto, an open in or open out is kind of the preferred choice. You’ll see guys, even if they qualify third, they’ll choose the 15th box because it’s an open in or open out.

“Indy is a little bit similar, but there’s the added superstition that goes into that. There’s metrics that are run on these pit boxes historically have been the most successful. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it other than odds. That’s kind of what goes into it.

“It’s a little bit of everything.”

Felix Rosenqvist has the first pit stall in Long Beach. He’s in front of Dixon. Pato O’Ward has the fifth pit stall. He’s directly behind Newgarden. With Rossi in the middle of all and having three of the first five pit stalls belonging to the McLaren camp, it has to give him some comfort that he has teammates and past champions around him.

As far as why they did chose to pit between Dixon and Newgarden, he said it goes to show you how important track position is at Long Beach and that they’d all prefer to be up front in the pits too.

That would set up Rossi on being just the fifth driver to win at Long Beach three or more times. It’s a feat that he cares a lot about since he sees this race as a marquee event.

“Yeah, man. I say it all the time, outside the Indy 500 I think this is one of our flagship races if not the flagship race,” he said. “It’s always such an amazing event from not only an entertainment on-and-off-the-track standpoint but a turnout standpoint. The fans there are passionate, they’re incredibly knowledgeable about the sport, there’s obviously a huge amount of history that exists with that city and that track.

“Jim Michaelian and his whole group do an amazing job for us every year. Real excited to get back there. As you mentioned, we’ve had some success there in the past. With the new team and the momentum that the Arrow McLaren group has at the moment, we’re very much looking forward to the weekend.

“It’s an awesome event. It’s one of those ones where you feel kind of like a Super Hero when you get to go do driver introductions. It’s annoying sometimes how busy pit lane is, but that’s just a testament to the excitement and energy that exists at that track.

“It’s certainly one that we try and model as many of our street courses after it. I think St. Pete comes close. Nashville comes close. I think Detroit this year is going to be phenomenal.

“Yes, the pedigree it has in terms of its history, just the location, all of the extracurricular activities that you can find throughout the weekend just makes it pretty unique.”

Among Rossi’s eight wins are two here, the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, a win on the Indy Road Course, Watkins Glen and Road America. If there’s a big event, he wins it. While he jokes that he’s also won Pocono, you can’t joke that when the prestige ramps up, Rossi is there battling for a win.

“It’s obviously cool to be able to have success in those types of races,” he tells me. “But, no, it’s all the same. If you’re fortunate enough to get it right on that day, it’s cool.”

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