As the agonizing seconds ticked away last May, Alexander Rossi’s frustration mounted on pit lane.
The first time his crew struggled with the fuel probe, the Nevada City native dropped from 10th to 22nd. The second time, it knocked him back to 30th and seemingly out of contention in his first Indianapolis 500.
Somehow, team co-owner Bryan Herta helped the rookie compose himself. He then performed something of a racing miracle: He found a solution, made a mid-race strategy modification and managed to rebuild the trust between driver and pit crew during the 100th running of the showcase race. It was a combination that sent Rossi to an improbable drive to Victory Lane – barely. He ran out of fuel between the third and fourth turns on the final lap and coasted across the finish line at about 130 mph.
Whatever. It all made for a sweet celebration barbecue months later at Michael Andretti’s home.
“It took 10 seconds,” Rossi said Wednesday, reflecting on the seemingly endless wait in pit lane. “So you’re pretty upset, for sure. You’re pretty angry and then that anger turns to sadness when you realize that you probably aren’t going to win the race.”
Pit stops, of course, are critical to any driver’s chances. A good one can help you win and a bad one can cost you a shot at the podium. In a typical Indy 500, each car pits after 25 to 30 laps so a crew of 11 can add fuel, change tires or make other tweaks. An average stop takes eight to 10 seconds, and the top teams get them done faster than that. Most teams pit seven or eight times and those 70 to 80 seconds are key.
Rossi stunned everyone last year by staying on the track for the final 36 laps, cutting the number of stops by one. It was a move forced by circumstance.
What exactly went wrong on those first two pit stops still isn’t clear.
Herta remembers physically changing out the fuel probe. Rossi described the problem as a human error, saying the probe was inserted at the wrong angle.
But the inexplicable often becomes the norm in racing, and during a 500-mile day, chances are that something will go awry as Herta has learned over the years.
“It never goes smoothly here,” Herta said.
From 1994-2006, Herta made five starts at Indy and was a model of consistency. He finished all but 17 total laps in his Indy starts and wound up third in 2005, fourth in 2004 and ninth in 1994. Rossi’s win was his second in the 500 as a team owner.
So when things got sideways early in last year’s race, Herta relied on his experience, cool demeanor and cerebral approach to turn things around.
“We take video of all our pit stops, so whenever we have a problem we review the video. That’s a real-time process,” he said. “We talk about a lot of scenarios (before the race) and things we can do if we have problems, things we can do that will keep us in the race. The key is to be open to that.”
Inside Gasoline Alley, teams prepare for everything and the pit crews take things seriously.
Will Power’s crew members braved the chilly, damp conditions Wednesday to tune up for Friday’s annual pit-stop competition. Other teams spent the day fine-tuning cars for the final practice before Sunday’s race, and inside motorhomes and hospitality tents all week, it’s a good bet that team owners, crew chiefs and other decision-makers were debating pre-race strategy and potential contingency plans.
Herta was doing that last May.
So from the moment, Rossi found himself playing catch-up, Herta had already decided their only real chance was to stretch out the fuel and hope for the best.
The initial data suggested Rossi would come up two laps short, so Rossi had to trust what the number-crunchers were telling him about conserving fuel. The 66-to-1 long shot stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps.
Rossi was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by Herta to conserve fuel.
His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed in so he could climb out to take a sweet sip of milk.
“Indy isn’t a race that you play for the top five,” Herta said. “You play your cards and try to give yourself a chance to win. We felt our best chance to win was one less stop than everybody else.”
Even now, as he tries to become the first American to win back-to-back 500s since Al Unser in 1970-71, Rossi isn’t quite sure how it worked out.
“I understand what we did,” he said. “But the fact that we had two laps to go with 0.65 gallons of fuel, we defied a lot of odds.”