Navigating the chaos: Nevada City native Alexander Rossi confident as he gears up for Indianapolis 500
A lot can happen during a 500 mile race.
Alexander Rossi knows this well.
He knows what it’s like to be among 33 race cars built purely for the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500. He knows what it’s like to hurl around a 2.5-mile oval at 230 mph in pursuit of IndyCar’s top prize. He knows the competition is a pack of elite, hungry drivers from all over the globe looking to earn their place in racing history and add their face to the Borg-Warner Trophy. Rossi knows exactly what it takes to navigate the chaos and win. He knows what it feels like to rise from his seat in Victory Lane and take a celebratory milk shower.
He also knows the heartbreak of a runner-up finish, and just how difficult it is to win a second Indy 500 title.
“Every 500-mile race that you do, you learn something and you can kind of keep it in your proverbial toolbox of experiences,” said Rossi, who will be competing in his sixth Indianapolis 500 this weekend. “We’ve learned from our shortcomings in past years, and we’ve also got success to draw upon. I think we have everything we need to get out and win number two.”
It was five years ago when the Nevada City native stunned the racing world by winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, using a high-risk, high-reward fuel strategy that sent him coasting on fumes across the finish line to claim the biggest win of his career.
“I was just as surprised as everyone else, to be honest,” said Rossi of his win in 2016. “We had a quick car, we had pace, but ultimately I didn’t think I had the experience to win it. I was just very fortunate to have a pretty aggressive team in terms of the strategy we took and the decisions that were made. I look back on it with a lot of positive memories but also, to this day, I’m still pretty surprised that we pulled it off.”
In 2017, Rossi earned a spot on the front row to start the 101st Indianapolis 500, and led 23 laps before finishing in seventh. A year later he started 32nd and charged through the competition to finish fourth. In 2019, Rossi started ninth and was leading with two laps left, but finished second behind Simon Pagenaud. A year ago, Rossi was once again contending when a pit-row penalty during the middle stages of the race sent him to the back of the pack. A few laps later he crashed and ended up taking 27th.
“Every year my knowledge of this race increases a little more, and my appreciation for it grows,” said Rossi, now in his sixth season competing in the IndyCar Series. “It’s weird, when you get a taste of winning it and then you don’t win — it sucks. It’s almost like naïveté is bliss for the guys who haven’t won it. They have the passion and drive to win it for a different reason, where as for those of us who have been fortunate to get one, it’s like, ‘man, I really want to be that guy again.’”
‘THE GREATEST SPECTACLE IN RACING’
Rossi, who first started racing go-karts at age 10, is back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week for the 105th running of the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He’s slated to start 10th when the green flag drops on Sunday, and while he’s confident he will be contending for the win at the end, he knows how elusive the checkered flag can be at the Brickyard.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard to win,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s just another IndyCar race, but there’s something about the track and the fact that it’s 500 miles, that really puts a lot of stress and pressure on everyone involved. And, to come out on top, you got to have a lot of different situations fall in the right direction for you.”
Rossi, who drives the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for Andretti Autosport, said he believes his team has a car that can win, it’s just about making the right decisions down the stretch.
“To win it, it changes every year,” he said. “There’s no set strategy or play that you take into the last 30 or 40 laps that’s going to guarantee anything. … You play it by ear. Some guys never want to lead a lap until the last lap, others prefer to lead the whole race. There’s different approaches and both have worked, but you just got to do what’s best for you and your car during that final stint.”
When Rossi won in 2016, it was a shock to many considering it was his rookie season with the IndyCar Series and only the second time he had ever raced on an oval track. At the time, Rossi was more accustomed to street courses from his years in Formula 1. He’s since become much more familiar with ovals, especially the one at Indianapolis Motor speedway.
“In a lot of ways, I wasn’t the best guy to win the (2016) race,” said Rossi. “Where as now, we show up at Indy and can be considered one of the guys who has a shot at it each year. And, that has come from being able to rely on the experience that has existed with Andretti Autosport. I have teammates that are very good around the speedway, and being able to learn everything from them from the beginning has allowed me to get pretty comfortable and confident around this place.”
Since his 2016 victory in Indianapolis, Rossi has become a star on the IndyCar circuit, earning a total of seven wins, six poles and 33 top-five finishes in 86 races. In 2018 he finished second in the overall points race, and was third in 2019.
In addition to his success on the track, Rossi has also developed his brand off of it. In 2018 he appeared on the reality television game show “The Amazing Race,” and currently co-hosts the popular podcast “Off track with Hinch and Rossi,” with fellow IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. Rossi has also been known to frequent various children’s hospitals as part of his work with Racing for Kids, and is also a mentor with the Find Your Grind organization.
His efforts on and off the track have been well received by fans, as Rossi was voted the 2020 IndyCar Fan Favorite.
“That was cool. I still really don’t know how that happened, but I’ll take it,” Rossi said, noting it was a bit of surprise considering 2020 was one of his worst seasons since joining IndyCar. “I think people’s acceptance of me has definitely grown since 2016, and it’s great to be a part of the series in the way that I am. It was a small bright side in what was a very disappointing season last year.”
‘WE FEEL LIKE WE HAVE A GOOD SHOT AT IT’
The 2020 campaign was riddled with on-track issues for Rossi. He didn’t win a race all season and finished ninth in the overall standings, his worst finish since his rookie season. Some of those struggles have continued into 2021. Rossi heads into Sunday on a 26-race winless streak, the longest of his IndyCar career.
Through five races this year, Rossi has yet to notch a top-five finish and currently sits in 14th place in the overall points race. A win this weekend would give Rossi a much needed boost.
Rossi does come into the race confident, and on the heels of his best showing of the year, a seventh place finish two weeks ago at the GMR Grand Prix.
“We feel good about the car we have,” he said. “Honda has done a phenomenal job of really bringing a lot of power for us, and we feel like we have a good shot at it.”
Coverage of the Indianapolis 500 starts at 8 a.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on NBC.
“They say the track chooses a winner, and I’m a firm believer in that,” said Rossi. “Hopefully this year is our time to get it again.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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