A year ago, Alexander Rossi was nearing the end of his long apprenticeship rising through the European racing development series toward his goal of Formula One, which he achieved with five Grand Prix starts for Manor Racing beginning last September. The 24-year-old from Nevada City expected to be retained for the full 2016 F-1 season.
But in a stunning and unexpected turn of events, Rossi on Sunday will start in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. He has transformed himself from a skilled road- and street-course racer to a competitor among 32 other drivers on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s tricky 2.5-mile oval, considered the most famous race track in the world.
“I’m really excited,” said Rossi, who quickly joined the IndyCar circuit days after losing his F-1 seat when Manor went with a different driver in February. “This has been a crazy experience, something unlike I’ve ever experienced. Every day, I’m learning something new about this place.”
Rossi, who graduated at age 16 from Forest Lake Christian High School in Auburn so he could pursue a racing career in Europe, has been impressive, perhaps even brilliant, in practice and qualifying sessions. He’s the top starting rookie – 11th fastest overall with a four-lap average of 228.473 mph – out of five in the field. Rossi will start in the middle of the fourth row in the three-abreast start.
I feel pretty comfortable, but I have no idea what to expect. I’m just going into it and take it lap by lap.
Rossi’s pre-race journey in practices and qualifying has been mistake-free. He’s had six days of practice – most of them six-hour sessions including the two days devoted to qualifying – to learn how to navigate around four similar-looking turns with subtle differences at speeds of more than 230 mph. Indy isn’t a cookie-cutter track. It’s a track with character. It can be friendly or it can be angry depending upon the conditions.
Racing for Andretti Herta Autosport, Rossi has driven 417 practice laps – 17 more than two full race distances – aboard his Napa Auto Parts/Curb Honda. He had a fastest lap of 231.249 mph in what is called tow speed, which is created by the draft from cars he was closely following. The speed gained in the tow is complicated by the turbulence that comes with it when a car gets closer to the one in front. In practice, Rossi ran in packs with his four teammates, including 2014 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, to learn how to run in the rough air of traffic.
Indianapolis is the second oval Rossi has raced on and it is nothing like the first. At the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway in early April, he finished 14th in an IndyCar race.
“It’s exciting, it’s interesting and I’m fortunate to have a lot of knowledge around me,” Rossi said. “The Napa Auto Parts Honda has been fast from Day One. That’s made my job as a rookie much easier. Andretti knows how to be successful in this race.”
Hunter-Reay was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2008, when he finished sixth for Rahal Letterman Racing. He’ll start his ninth Indy 500 from the outside of the front row.
“Alexander has done a great job,” Hunter-Reay said. “He’s methodically picked through it. He’s had the opportunity to run with four teammates, experienced guys who know how to run this race. But I remember my first 500 thinking, ‘I know what it’s going to be like. I’ve practiced in groups, I’ve run in the heat of it,’ and you get into the race and everybody is ratcheted up from 90 percent to 110 percent. Everybody is going for broke and it changes a lot. He’s a smart kid and I think he knows what he wants in the car. But it’s going to be his first 500 and no matter what, there’s lessons to be learned. But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a contender.”
Eddie Cheever, an American who grew up in Italy, came through the same different levels of development series in Europe as Rossi and made 132 F-1 starts in 10 seasons before launching a second career in IndyCars. He won the 1998 Indy 500 and will be working as an analyst on ABC’s broadcast Sunday.
“I’m a fan of Alexander and it would be great to see him do well,” Cheever said. “You need to be very careful when you’re at Indy for the first time. This place will put bear traps out for you that look like little lollipops. Open-wheel training in Europe is much harder than it is in the United States. There’s more competition because they come from all over the world. But you don’t learn anything about ovals. He’s lucky he ended up with a team like Andretti who has a wealth of experience around here.
“Alexander has a lot of things going for him. He definitely has the talent. He definitely has the determination. He’s going to have to be a really good pupil the first 50 laps, then work on it the next 50 laps. Those are lessons you have to learn. Turning into Turn 1 is impossible to describe to somebody in words because it changes every race, every lap. Turn 1 is your biggest hurdle to go through.”
I’m really excited. This has been a crazy experience, something unlike I’ve ever experienced.
Like Rossi, American Conor Daly is 24 and spent several years in the European system, including a stint in GP2. He’ll make his third start Sunday in the 500.
“Obviously, Alex is with a really good team, a really strong five-man team – especially at Indy,” Daly said. “He’s in the right environment. He’s done a great job so far. The race is always a different animal, but with the way some of these practices have been, it’s almost like the race. That’s been good experience for him for sure.”
Rossi isn’t sure how well he’s prepared.
“I feel pretty comfortable, but I have no idea what to expect,” he said. “I’m just going into it and take it lap by lap. The organized group runs was a positive thing for us, important to our preparation.”
Rossi expects to become a quick study in the art of racing at Indianapolis, where Sunday could be his first and last 500. Having spent his entire career climbing the F-1 ladder, Rossi still has his sights set on the Grand Prix circuit, where he was re-signed in March by Manor Racing as a reserve driver.
But first things first. “I’m going to win,” Rossi said of Sunday’s Indy 500.
Indy 500 at a glance
- When: Sunday, 9 a.m.
- Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (oval, 2.5 miles)
- Distance: 500 miles, 200 laps
- 2015 winner: Juan Pablo Montoya
- Pole: James Hinchcliffe (230.760 mph)
- Rookie Alexander Rossi’s position: No. 11 (228.473 mph)
- TV: Ch. 10