NASCAR & Auto Racing

Alexander Rossi hopes homecoming week ends with another victory

Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi poses during the traditional winners photo on the start/finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, May 30, 2016. Rossi, a Nevada City native, was honored in Grass Valley on Sunday.
Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi poses during the traditional winners photo on the start/finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, May 30, 2016. Rossi, a Nevada City native, was honored in Grass Valley on Sunday. The Associated Press

Alexander Rossi received the key to Grass Valley last weekend, but the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner has been too busy to try it on any locks.

Rossi returned to his hometown of Nevada City last Sunday to visit family and friends and participate in the annual Constitution Day Parade. Rossi, who turns 25 on Sept. 25, left home for Europe a decade ago in pursuit of a career as a Formula One driver. Surprisingly, his biggest victory came not in F-1 but last May in the Indianapolis 500, where he literally coasted to victory in arguably the world’s most prestigious auto race. He triumphantly returned to his hometown, and neighboring Grass Valley, last weekend to adulation and accolades from thousands.

Rossi said he also hopes he created some new IndyCar Series fans.

“The past week has been fun,” Rossi said as he prepared for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Sonoma, the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma Raceway. “It was definitely a homecoming and very special to see all my friends and family that I haven’t seen in a long time. I also got to go to the state Capitol as a guest of (Senator) Ted Gaines. It’s the first time I’ve been back to the Capitol since fourth grade.”

The past week has been fun. It was definitely a homecoming and very special to see all my friends and family that I haven’t seen in a long time.

Alexander Rossi

The 2016 season has been a whirlwind for Rossi, and those winds reached hurricane speed after he won the Indy 500 in his first try. He’s the second American rookie since 1927 to win the race, which celebrated its 100th running. Rossi became the 70th winner in race history, and his face will be cast in silver on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy, which made the trip to Nevada City with him.

Rossi thought he’d have a ride in F-1 this season with Manor Racing. But the financial backing of an entire country (Indonesia) purchased the seat out from under him. That’s when Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta made a phone call that changed Rossi’s career trajectory and his life.

“Alexander had been on Michael’s list for a while, and I had heard of him from his days in GP 2 and F-1,” Herta said from the paddock at Sonoma Raceway. “He made a strong impression on the team even before his first test session. He’s focused and very talented. But he has all the skills, really, to be very successful in this sport.”

Herta said the team and Rossi have been frustrated that they have not capitalized better since the Indy 500 win, his only victory in 15 IndyCar races this season. Rossi enters the season finale in 11th place in the standings.

“We have definitely struggled as a team on the ovals, and that’s not on him at all,” Herta said. “He’s been great to work with and puts a lot of effort into this sport. He spends a lot of time at the track learning all he can.”

Rossi had not been on the 2.4-mile, 12-turn course at Sonoma Raceway before last week’s testing session. He said he likes the elevation gains but noticed that there is low grip for the tires. With another strong showing, Rossi may crack the top 10 in the final standings. And with double points awarded on the last race of the season, he’s almost assured to be the 2016 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year.

Alexander had been on Michael (Andretti’s) list for a while, and I had heard of him from his days in GP 2 and F-1. He made a strong impression on the team even before his first test session. He’s focused and very talented. But he has all the skills, really, to be very successful in this sport.

Bryan Herta of Andretti Herta Autosport

After Sunday, Rossi will fulfill his reserve and test driver contract with Manor F-1 for the final six races of the season. That means more travel to far-off nations such as Japan and Malaysia through to the Grand Prix finale at Abu Dhabi on Nov. 27.

Sometime before then, he said, he’ll have a better idea of where he’s headed for the 2017 season. He said signing a long-term contract with Andretti Herta Autosport is a strong possibility. But he’s also upped his cache with F-1 teams. They undoubtedly would love to have an American compete for the F-1 title next year.

He’s as busy as ever, he said, which he prefers. Since the Indy 500 win, his Instagram account has been deluged with direct messages from single women wanting to meet him.

Herta said it’s been fun to see the “extra” attention his driver has gotten since May.

“It’s absolutely not part of my job to keep the women away,” Herta chuckled. “But I’m certainly happy for him that he’s single. Being tall, dark and handsome doesn’t hurt his chances, either.”

Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at editorwriter@att.net or @editorwriter001

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