By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Not that Alexander Rossi isn't an excellent young driver with genuine talent, because he is, but showing up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 - the greatest single motor race in the world - in his first attempt, is an achievement that will probably take a long time to sink in for the 24-year-old Californian. Rossi became the 10th rookie in Indianapolis 500 history to win the race and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001. He was competing in just his sixth Verizon IndyCar Series race.
Even though Rossi had been in Formula 1 prior to his IndyCar adventure, nothing could have possibly prepared him for the sheer scope of the Indianapolis 500. But from the moment he arrived at The Speedway, the young charger handled the pressures of the Month of May with aplomb. Rossi appears to be unflappable, composed and quick - reminding me of a young Rick Mears - and he was a quick study throughout practice and blistering fast in qualifying. And on race day, Rossi (No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian NAPA Auto Parts Honda Turbo V6) stretched his last tank of fuel over the final 36 laps - while being coached by Bryan Herta every step of the way - coasting across the finish line to win the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in stunning fashion. Rossi had led just fourteen laps.
You could tell by the shell-shocked expression on Rossi's face in Victory Circle that he could barely comprehend what had just happened. "I have no idea how we pulled that off," Rossi admitted after drinking and then pouring the celebratory bottle of milk over his head. "We struggled a little bit in the pit stops but Bryan came up with an unbelievable strategy. I can't believe we've done this!" Rossi's deal with Andretti Herta wasn't formalized until a few weeks before the 2016 season opener, and the team had just unveiled NAPA Auto Parts as a sponsor a little over a week before the race.
"This is unbelievable," said Herta, who merged his team with Andretti's this year. "Man, it was so close at the end," added Herta, who crafted Rossi's race strategy. "For a rookie to drive with the poise he did in such a tough situation - I was telling him, 'Don't let anybody pass you but save fuel' - and he did it."
"I don't even know where to begin," Rossi said. "In February I wasn't even thinking about Indy car, and now we've just won the Indy 500. Thanks to an amazing group of people who gave me an opportunity to come here this year." (See more coverage of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in "The Line" -WG)
This was the fourth Indy 500 win for Andretti Autosport (Dan Wheldon, 2005; Dario Franchitti, 2007; Hunter-Reay, 2014) and the second for Herta (Wheldon, 2011).
"After that last pit stop, I knew that Alex was going to try it," co-owner Michael Andretti said. "We knew then, all right, if he's going to try it, we're going to try different strategies. It really worked out. We had two cars that had a shot at winning with two different strategies. To be a part of history, to win the 100th running, to win it with a 1-2 finish is incredible. I'm a bit speechless."
There were plenty of possible scenarios for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Another win for Roger Penske in his 50th Anniversary year. A possible fourth win for Helio Castroneves to join Foyt, Unser and Mears as the only four-time winners. Another win for Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan and Chip Ganassi Racing. Redemption for J.R. Hildebrand. A first win for Marco Andretti, and on and on.
But instead it was an unlikely win for a 24-year-old Californian who had spent most all of his formative years in racing in Europe, who combined with a wily veteran in Bryan Herta, to make racing history.
It was a spectacular homecoming.
Congratulations to Alexander Rossi, Bryan Herta, Michael Andretti and the entire Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian racing team for a job well done. And congratulations must go out to Honda, the company focused all of its energy on winning the Indianapolis 500 this year, and it paid off.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(Photo by David Yowe)
Alexander Rossi savors the moment in Victory Circle following his momentous win in the 100th Indianapolis 500.
(Photo by John Cote/INDYCAR)
Bryan Herta (far left in black shirt and red hat), Alexander Rossi, Michael Andretti, Honda operatives and the entire Andretti Herta team celebrate in Victory Circle.
(Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR)
Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
(Photo by Chris Owens/INDYCAR)
Alexander Rossi and the famous Borg Warner Trophy at the Monday morning after the "500" photo shoot.
(Photo by Chris Owens/INDYCAR)
(Photo by Chris Owens/INDYCAR)
Rossi and his Andretti/Herta crew members.
Editor's Note: Ford has just released "Let's Race" - the third of five chapters in “The Return,” which is a long-form documentary that follows the development of both the street car and race car versions of the Ford GT from the decision to build the cars to the return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Watch chapter one, "The Decision," here and chapter two, "The Cutting Edge," here. (FYI: The Autoextremist makes a cameo appearance in chapter one.) -WG
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Indianapolis, Indiana, June 1, 1965. Jim Clark, Colin Chapman and the Team Lotus-Ford crew the morning after winning the Indianapolis 500.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD