Alexander Rossi spent his entire career prior to this year racing on road and street courses, the kind that turn left and right and require deft braking and shifting. They are not skills that apply to oval racing, where the turns are all to the left and braking and shifting are used almost exclusively for pit stops.
In the second oval of his life, Rossi took on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most challenging and dangerous race track in the world, Sunday in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. He turned it into a triumph that will be remembered in the same way Ray Harroun’s win in the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911 is one that will never be forgotten. He climbed the highest mountain, the Mount Everest of motor racing, in his first try. Rossi is the first rookie to win at Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and Castroneves had extensive experience racing on ovals in the IndyCar rival CART series.
Rossi’s ambition had been focused completely on Formula One until mid-February. A native Californian from Nevada City, a town north of Sacramento established during the gold rush of 1849, Rossi won the Formula BMW world championship at age 17 in 2008. It gave his father, Pieter, the ability to raise money to send him to Europe and race in the development series. Rossi won three GP2—F1’s top-shelf development series—last season and they earned him a promotion to Manor Racing. Rossi drove in five Grands Prix, a second-tier F1 team, but impressed with his professionalism and ability to finish races. His best result was 12th at the Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas.
“I spent my entire career going towards Formula 1 and was in a position I thought at the end of last year to continue,” Rossi said.
Rossi hoped Manor would retain him, but the ride was bought out from underneath him by Indonesia’s Rio Haryanto in mid-February. Manor kept him as a reserve driver, which doesn’t guarantee any racing or testing. Rossi had looked toward the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2015, but the GP2 opportunity surfaced and he grabbed it. He finished second in the GP2 championship.
There wasn’t anything to be gained or proven for Rossi to return to GP2. By coincidence, Bryan Herta’s team had worked all winter to find a sponsor for Gabby Chaves, who had raced for the team in 2015. They thought they had a major sponsor lined up, but it pulled out late in the process.
Herta went into survival mode and made a deal with Michael Andretti’s team to put together a program for the fourth car on his team. They hired Rossi, the best American prospect in Europe.
“It was a partnership that came out of a bad set of circumstances,” Herta said.
Rossi was 12th at St. Petersburg, Fla., and 20th in the Long Beach (Calif.) Grand Prix, on street courses and 15th at Barber’s road course in Alabama—races that should have been in his wheelhouse. He was 14th and finished on the lead lap at one-mile Phoenix in his oval debut.
At Indianapolis, working with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti and Townsend Bell, Rossi was fast and flawless in his Honda. He started in middle of the fourth row, 11th in the field of 33 and the top rookie, with a four-lap qualifying average of 228.473.
“I’m really excited,” Rossi said three days before the race. “This has been a crazy experience. It’s something unlike I’ve ever experienced. Every day I’m learning something new about this place.”
Rossi went into Sunday’s race confident. “I’m going to win,” he said. “I always go into a race to win.”
Rossi drove with poise, running in or around the position where he started, in the opening half of the race. He saved fuel and stretched a stint to take the lead on the 122nd lap. Five laps earlier, Hunter-Reay and Bell, who both had run in the top five throughout the race, had been eliminated from contention by a three-car pit lane contact along with Castroneves. Hunter-Reay led a race-high 52 laps while Bell had 12.
Castroneves had a left-rear wheel protector become dislodged, forcing him to pit and eliminating him from contention.
Rossi, Munoz, Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden were the four fastest cars left on the track for the final 40 laps. Fuel mileage became critical. The leaders pitted under caution with 36 laps remaining.
Kanaan faded, perhaps from saving fuel. Newgarden stopped with five laps to go and Munoz with four, both for fuel, allowing Rossi to take the lead.
“I asked Alex to drive to a fuel number that was almost impossible and keep a pace to stay ahead,” Herta, his strategist, said.
Rossi’s Honda began sputtering exiting turn four on the final lap and he coasted to take the checkered flag. A rookie won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s so amazing for a rookie to win this race,” Michael Andretti said.
Although largely unknown in America, Rossi is the second American to win Indy in the past three years after Hunter-Reay won in 2014. The previous American winner was Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
The 24-year-old Rossi can be an asset to building support for the rebuilding IndyCar series, but will he be back in it and at Indianapolis next year? The Indy 500 victory will certainly enhance his marketability and status in F1. It confirms his talent as world-class. Jacques Villeneuve left for F1 after winning Indy in 1995 and Juan Montoya did the same in 2000. It is the one race in the IndyCar series that winning will make an impact on F1 teams.
Rossi was asked in a media conference on Thursday if he still had his eye on F1.
“Always,” he said.
But winning Indy and the possibility of the financial rewards it will bring may entice him to stay with a top-level team in IndyCar rather than a mid-pack or lower team in F1. Rossi will better understand the rewards of winning the Indy 500 when he gets the check for it on Monday. Montoya earned $2,449,055 last year and with Indy’s mammoth sell-out crowd Sunday, it could be larger. Rossi will have to share the purse with his team, but he’ll probably earn 50 percent of it.
They say winning the Indy 500 changes a driver’s life forever and it’s certainly the case with Alexander Rossi, who has become an American racing star in a single afternoon.