alexander rossi

Meet Alexander Rossi, the Surprise Rookie Winner of the Indy 500

A day after his shock victory at the Indianapolis 500, Alexander Rossi was in reflective mood. Anne Proffit was there.

by Anne Profit, motorsport.com
31 May 2016, 2:03pm

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Motorsport.com: F1 News, MotoGP, Le Mans Racing, Indycar

A day after his shock victory at the Indy 500, Alexander Rossi met the media and was in reflective mood.

The Californian, in his first season of Verizon IndyCar Series competition, got out of his blue and gold No. 98 NAPA-sponsored Andretti Herta Autosport-Honda in Victory Lane and appeared perplexed. He had no idea what to do next. He didn't know how to apply the victory wreath and what to do with the milk, whether to guzzle or sip?

"I think, when I pulled into Victory Lane, I was blown away with the fact that I had won, but I had no idea, even remotely what was then around the corner from that," he said after posing for two hours on the hot Yard of Bricks at the oval's start-finish line.

"This entire month has been something that I was blown away by every single day," he continued. "I'm enjoying it and just trying to embrace it as much as I can, all the while appreciating what happened yesterday."

Unlike most Indy 500 winners, Rossi took it easy after his victory and got a good night's sleep because between now and Thursday, he's going to be pulled every which way, before being ready to do it all again in Detroit this coming weekend.

The significance of the Indy victory, the exceptional preparation by engineer Tom German and the knowledge-based strategy of team co-owner and former racer Bryan Herta are all starting to become part of Rossi's understanding. It's important that we as onlookers understand it too.

Alexander Rossi (98) and Alex Tagliani (35) during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo by Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

An oval novice, Rossi went to the Phoenix IndyCar test as an observer - he'd just signed with Andretti Herta and the car wasn't ready for him yet. Come the race in early April, he qualified and finished 14th but that remained the sum of his oval learning experience – driving a heavily banked one-miler oval. It was a good learning experience but nothing prepares you for Indy like turning laps there.

"When I drove the first few laps in ROP (rookie orientation procedure), I had kind of two emotions: one was 'Holy shit, that's fast' and the other one was 'This is actually a lot more relaxing than Phoenix because you actually have straightaways to recompose yourself'. Every single time you go into Turn 1 and Turn 3, you're questioning whether or not you're still going to continue to do this. It was crazy in the beginning, and then as each day went on I settled in more and it became more natural to me."

Alexander Rossi's first memory of the Indy 500 came in 2006, when now-teammate Marco Andretti lost the race to Sam Hornish Jr. by just a few inches. "It was something that really stood out to me," he said, although ever since he began competing, Formula 1 had been Rossi's ambition, and he headed to Europe age 16.

Yet Rossi admits he wasn't terribly nervous on Sunday morning, despite acknowledging the mood of his team as he arrived at the garage.

"I walked into the garage feeling completely fine but everyone around me... you could feel the tension, you could feel the kind of pressure and stress and I was like, 'Well, I should probably feel a little more concerned about this.' But it never really came, and I think it was just relief more than anything when I got into the car on the grid. Being able to do what I'm most comfortable doing was actually taking pressure off."

The nerves did catch up with him eventually, however.

"They came about 15 laps from the end when I thought, OK, we maybe have a shot at this, but there's going to be a lot of things that need to work out. There's the fuel-mileage number on the dash, and some laps it was good to me and some laps it wasn't, and the laps that it wasn't, I was just freaking out. At the end I was definitely, definitely very nervous."

Rookies always need good people around them and Rossi, with Herta and German in his corner, has racers who have won here in the past and who have great experience on this very demanding 2.5-mile oval.

"Tom and Bryan are two of the best guys an Indy driver could ask to have on their car," he stated. Giving credit to Herta for the "great [strategy] calls he made," Rossi also acknowledged German for giving him "one of the best cars on the racetrack all month. His success speaks for itself and it's such a privilege to be able to drive for him and work with him on a daily basis."

Following his glorious trip to the one-of-its-kind Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's back to focusing on the Verizon IndyCar Series for Rossi. After his trips to New York on Tuesday and Texas on Wednesday (to promote IndyCar's race at TMS), he will land in Detroit to race on yet another unfamiliar track, the street course on Belle Isle.

"I don't know anything about it but I will start watching videos in the next couple of days," he said. "I am very much looking forward to going there.

"I've heard it's bumpy: Great...that means my hands will get torn up a little bit. I was starting to like the ovals because your hands don't get shredded, but I guess that's going to go out the window."

Despite a rough start to the season, largely in line with Andretti Autosport-Honda's struggles, Rossi said the turning point had come at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis earlier in the month, and shares team manager Rob Edwards' view that there are more good days ahead for the team as a whole.

He remarked: "We need to carry that momentum forward to Detroit and Texas, but I think we've definitely started to figure a few things out, and as a team and a unit we're really starting to click. The whole Andretti Autosport organization is going to move forward in the next couple of races."

And with that prediction hanging in the air, the surprise winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 gave a polite smile and left for his next obligation.

Find more racing news and analysis on motorsport.com.