In just a short period of time, Alexander Rossi has become an IndyCar superstar. That wasn’t exactly how he had it planned, but he probably wouldn’t have it any other way now.
Rossi began his career in Europe in hopes of a Formula 1 career and he accomplished that goal in 2015, racing for Manor Marussia F1. Rossi raced five races for the team, with a career best finish of 12th in the United States Grand Prix, but a bunch of circumstances beyond his control kept him from going any further in F1.
Formula 1’s loss was IndyCar’s gain as Bryan Herta hired Rossi to drive his car (with Michael Andretti) for the 2016 season. Success came quickly for the then 24-year-old rookie. In his second oval race ever, Rossi stretched his fuel tank further than anyone else to win the 100th Indianapolis 500.
Since then, Rossi has found a home in IndyCar and has become an ambassador for the sport both off and on the track. Off the track, Rossi has had appearances on The Amazing Race and various talk shows. On the track, he has seen victory lane six more times since his Indy win (including two wins at Long Beach), and he came close to winning his second Indy 500 earlier this year.
Rossi has been a huge part of the growth of the NTT IndyCar Series, and he seems happy that he will get to be a part of IndyCar for years to come. He spoke to The Comeback on a variety of topics including The Amazing Race, winning the Indianapolis 500, and his hopes for the last couple races to try and overcome a 38 point gap to points leader Josef Newgarden.
Phillip Bupp: First thing I wanted to ask was, do more people recognize you as being an IndyCar driver or being on The Amazing Race?
Alexander Rossi: It’s a good question. Unfortunately, more people recognize me from The Amazing Race probably. Yeah. Unless I’m in Indianapolis, people [there] know me as an IndyCar driver. But outside of Indy, yeah, it’s more from the TV show.
PB: What was being on there like and getting to do it with Conor Daly?
Rossi: It was okay. It wasn’t my favorite experience that I’ve ever had in my life, but it was good for us to have the opportunity to obviously increase our brand awareness and introduce a new audience to the NTT IndyCar Series that might not have previously watched it. So that was all a super positive thing, but I don’t think I’d do it again.
PB: Yes, I was going to say the importance of selling yourself to a new audience to IndyCar. That’s kind of what I’m doing because many who are going to be reading this are going to be those who might be casual fans or may not be IndyCar fans who are going to look into this.
Rossi: Sure. Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s good to have people like that, that are getting it out there because [IndyCar is] an amazing product and series, and it’s going in the right direction.
PB: Now, going back a few years, I’ve been following you back in your GP2 days and hoping you were going to get into Formula 1 and have an American in there. But what I don’t think many people think about is even though you’re American, you spent most of your adult life back then in Europe. So when you came back to America and to IndyCar, did you have any difficulties adjusting to American culture or the racing even though you’re American?
Rossi: Yeah. You took the words right out of my mouth. I mean that’s exactly right. I went over there when I was 16 and spent eight years over there, and so a lot of kind of who I became was very much based on living in Europe and England for quite a long time.
And, yeah, I mean it was definitely probably a bigger culture shock in a way coming back to the States to race in 2016 than it was me going over there in 2009. So, yeah, it’s weird for people to kind of hear that, but I think once you explain it, they understand. I mean, as a teenager transitioning into a 20-something year old, it was all influenced by European culture for sure.
PB: And then coming into IndyCar, and I assume being on ovals for the first time. You won Indy [in your second oval race]. You were fast that entire month back then in 2016. Did it surprise you, that you picked up oval racing as quickly as you did?
Rossi: Yeah, maybe. But I think a lot of oval racing really is your car. There’s obviously little nuances that exist, and to win an oval race is very challenging because there’s a lot of kind of chess match, chess-like decisions that you’re making in terms of when you’re going to the front, and how long you want to lead a race, and all of that.
Whereas on a road course, it’s very much a simple mindset as you’re trying to get to the front as soon as possible and just stay there. Whereas on an oval, with the way that it works with fuel mileage and how powerful the slipstream is and everything, there’s times when you want to lead, and there’s times that you don’t.
So understanding the ebbs and flows of oval racing is probably the hardest thing to pick up. The actual driving side of it is if you have a fast car, and you have any basic amount of talent, honestly you’ll be fast on an oval. It’s not rocket science.
PB: And going back to Indy. Just as an aside, I was there as a fan, and I actually got to be in victory lane with you for the 100th Indy 500. When you were racing that and having the issues with fuel pickup, you knowing you had a fast car. What was kind of those range of emotions like starting a fast car, having the issues all day, and maybe thinking the win was gone, to making insane fuel mileage, and getting the win?
Rossi: Well, I never thought I was going to win that race because it was my second oval race and my first race ever on a superspeedway. Right? So I never went into it with that consideration. But the fact that we qualified eleventh, I was pretty happy with, and the goal was kind of just to finish the 500 miles and all of that.
And so when we were eighth and were running there for awhile, and we had the fuel issue, and we went to the back, I wasn’t really that upset about it because I didn’t really…I was like, “Well, there’s a lot of the race left, so whatever. We’ll just kind of go forward again.” And, again, there wasn’t the, I guess, just understanding of the significance at the time of the race and the magnitude of what we were trying to accomplish. So then, really, that was fine. The first time I wasn’t that upset about it.
It was when we drove back to like ninth or tenth, and I realized, “Wow, we actually have a really good car, and I can be aggressive with it, and kind of get it back close to the front.” That when it happened again, that’s when I was upset because I was like we’re now throwing away potentially an opportunity here because we do have a really good car. A car at that point that I realized was a lot faster than I think I knew it was at the start if that makes sense.
Rossi: So then obviously Bryan Herta came up with his magician strategy, magic plan, that he devised, and we were going to skip a pit stop. And when he told me kind of a fuel number that I needed to start hitting, I told him, “It wasn’t possible.” And I was like, “There’s no way this will happen.”
And he said, “You have to make it happen. That’s really the only option that we have.” We brainstormed on the radio with different ways to make it happen, and we found kind of a strategy that worked to hit the mileage.
And, yeah, from that point it was just kind of…we knew that we were going to make it. Well, we were going to run out of fuel on the last lap. From really when we started the final stint, our assistant engineers and fuel guys were like, “You’ll make it to lap 199, and you’ll run out halfway throughout the lap.”
It was just a matter of how much of a lead we were going to have at that point, and if we were going to be able to coast all the way across the line. So obviously we had a big enough lead and enough momentum to kind of roll the thing across the “Yard of Bricks,” so it was pretty wild.
PB: Yeah. I was in the stands in the frontstretch, and I was taking video of…I wanted you going across, and I almost missed you because I wasn’t expecting you to coast.
Rossi: Right [laughter]. For sure.
Phil Bupp: You made a good point about not…about the Indy 500…I don’t want to come off this as being disrespectful because you weren’t, but not really seeing the prestige of it as much as you do now. Did that help with not putting as much pressure on you back then for your first [Indy 500]?
Rossi: Probably. I mean I think that part of why we had so much success was there was a sense of naivety that went along with it, and so I wasn’t as anxious or uptight as maybe the other guys were that day, and so it was easier to deal with the range of emotions maybe, to allow us to be in that position.
But, yeah, I mean for sure there was just not the knowledge of the race. I mean I had never even attended one prior to that, so not only was it my first race, but my first 500 I was going to be in. It was the first one I had ever been to.
So my whole world revolved around Formula 1 and European racing. I had watched the ‘500 kind of as a kid just on TV, right, but I had never really paid that much attention to it. I never knew anything about kind of the wreath. I just didn’t know about any of the tradition that really went along with it.
But when I became kind of the face of Indy 500 very shortly thereafter, I learned very quickly. It kind of was the ‘baptism of fire’ in a way, and it gave me the knowledge and appreciation that I have today.
PB: A thing I noticed about you is you have great car control, and it’s been seen at times, especially this year at Texas. Is something like that instinctual? Is it subconscious? Are you able to think that fast and constantly react to avoid being caught up in a crash?
Rossi: I don’t know that I have an answer for you. I mean it’s just you react to things as you see them, and then it’s just… Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. It’s car control. I don’t know if that’s a learned thing, or if that’s a born, given thing, or whatever.
But on top of that, I spend a lot of time training in the gym from a reaction-time standpoint. That’s a big area of focus that I work on, so I’m sure that contributes as well, I’m sure it’s a lot of little things.
PB: Now, we’re coming in to the last few races of the season. Unfortunately, you had a setback in Pocono but remain in second in the points. What’s it going to take to get that championship?
Rossi: You know Pocono in a way…I mean it was obviously bad from a championship perspective, but from a mindset and approach perspective, it was actually probably a good thing. At least we’re going to use it as a good thing. Because kind of from Texas forward, we’ve been thinking, “Okay, well, we need to make decisions to stay in front of Josef, and let’s not potentially throw away a third trying to get a win if he’s in fifth type of thing, and we’ll just need to keep chipping away at the points.”
And now that mindset’s gone. It’s just, “Screw it. We’re going to try and win races.” Right? Because that’s what we need to do, and we have three races and three tracks that are really, really good for us, so we have the opportunity to do it. We just need to go out and execute on it.
So we’re kind of going to default back to how we were in 2018 of we’ll take pretty big risks at this point to win races, and hopefully it’ll be enough.
PB: And I think if anything, if there is a silver lining, it’s seeing everyone working on the car, trying to get it back out on the track, and doing everything you can to get as many points as you can. I think that’s going to kind of bring you even closer together and maybe get you a title.
Rossi: Yeah, for sure. I mean it’s an amazing team. I mean there’s a reason why I wanted to stay with Andretti Autosport, and the 27 crew is a huge part of that, and really the whole organization. So they did their jobs. They got Ryan and I both back out there to try and collect as many points as we could. And who knows? It might be the difference maker.