AUTO RACING: On this day four years ago Nevada City native Alexander Rossi drove into record books
A celebratory bottle of milk may not have been the thirst quencher he was looking for after an intense 3½ hour race, but victory had never tasted sweeter for Alexander Rossi — so he gulped it down and poured it all over himself for good measure.
“It’s not necessarily the drink of choice, but in that moment it’s not the milk, right, it’s the significance of what has gone on,” Rossi said when recalling the moments following his historic win at the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “They could have given me, probably, pickle juice and I wouldn’t care, it’s about that tradition and it’s part of what you have accomplished and that part of it is pretty special. But, I think most drivers share in my kind of answer, and that’s why they pour it all over themselves rather than drinking it.”
It was four years ago today when Rossi, a rookie at the time, boldly burst onto the IndyCar racing scene and forever cemented his name in racing lore.
The Nevada City native had just five IndyCar races under his belt when with a daring strategy he stunned a sellout of crowd of 350,000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and millions more watching around the world. A strategy with big risks, but one that ultimately led to a historic victory and the name Alexander Rossi being etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside the rest of the legends from the sport.
Just 24 years old at the time, Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He was facing veteran racers driving top-tier cars in pursuit of the sports’ most coveted prize. Rossi had a fast car as well and even turned in the fastest lap of the race (225.288 mph), but he and his team would need to outsmart his competition if they were going to shock the world and cross the Speedway’s Yard of Bricks in first.
With the 200-lap race nearing its conclusion, leaders began peeling off into the pits for fuel between laps 192 and 196. But not Rossi. He was going to take his shot.
By the 197th lap, Rossi was in first place with just enough fuel to make a run at the checkered flag.
Heading into the final lap Rossi led the field by 13 seconds, an eternity by IndyCar standards, but with fuel in short supply he’d have to be measured for the final 2.5 miles. His last lap was relatively slow, about 40 mph slower than those chasing him, but the distance he had already created was enough. He finished 4.498 seconds ahead of runner up Carlos Munoz, his Andretti Autosport teammate.
Rossi’s car ran out of gas on its way to Victory Lane. In fact, the tank was empty coming out of Turn 4, but he was able to coast across the finish line.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” Rossi said immediately after. “I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time. The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ll need to see a psychiatrist after this.’”
The Nevada County boy who was winning go-kart championships at age 11 had now claimed IndyCar’s most sought after trophy.
“I just can’t believe that we’ve done this,” Rossi said at the time. “At one point, we were 33rd, but we rolled the dice and came through and made it happen. I have no idea how we pulled that off. We struggled a little bit with the pit stops, but Bryan (team co-owner Bryan Herta) came up with that unbelievable strategy.”
Herta implemented the winning fuel stretching strategy after a majority of the field pitted under yellow on lap 164, knowing that most would have to pit once more before the race’s conclusion. Rossi was one of three drivers that day who was able to squeeze 36 laps out of a tank.
“We ran the numbers, and the guys on the timing stand were giving us updates every quarter lap; we were watching it that close,” Herta said. “We were able to draft off our teammates, and you guys saw how close it was.
“It’s one thing to have a plan, but it’s another to be able to execute it the way we did. I can’t overstate how hard it was for Alex to drive to a fuel number and still keep pace with the opposition.”
With the win, Rossi had caught the attention of his fellow drivers, big-name sponsors and the racing world as a whole.
“Dreams become all the more vivid with grit and digging deep to make them a reality, making it that much more special when you finally do accomplish them,” Rossi wrote in an article submitted to The Union in December 2016. “But what’s funny about success is that it just fuels your desire and determination to do it again and again. Racing is my life and I relish the opportunity to take chances, redefine expectations, and to fight the fight in and out the cockpit.
“For me the ambition to succeed has always been about pushing the boundaries, testing what’s possible, and pushing the limits of what’s achievable with man and machine,” he added.
Rossi went on to win the Series’ 2016 Rookie of the Year honors. In his sophomore season, he won the race at Watkins Glen and notched five top-five finishes. By his third year on the circuit Rossi was among the elite drivers, claiming three poles, three wins, 10 top-five finishes and placing second on the overall points championship. In 2019, Rossi added two more poles, two more wins, 11 more top-fives and placed third in the points race.
As for the Indianapolis 500, since his win in 2016, Rossi has finished seventh (2017), fourth (2018) and second (2019).
This year’s Indianapolis 500 was originally scheduled for last Sunday, but has been postponed to Aug. 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other races have been postponed as well and a few have been canceled, including the Grand Prix of Long Beach, which Rossi has won the past two years.
“Obviously, the Grand Prix of Long Beach,” Rossi said when asked which race he was most disappointed to see canceled. “I’ve won it the last two years, and it’s one of my favorite courses regardless of how I finish. Plus, being from California, I usually have a lot of family and friends come out. So it’s disappointing for them as well.”
The IndyCar Series as a whole has been on hold during the pandemic, but is scheduled to get back on track June 6 with the Genesys 300 at the Texas Motor Speedway. There are 14 races on the 2019 schedule, which concludes with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Oct. 25.
Despite the welcomed extra time with his girlfriend and dogs, Rossi said he’s ready to get back in the driver’s seat and chase the 2020 overall points championship.
“Very simply, I’m looking forward to getting in my race car.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4232.
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