Road & Track (USA)
‘Oh My God! Oh My God!’
ALEXANDER ROSSI, 2016
Sitting on the grid at the Brickyard in the No. 98 Andretti Autosport Honda, Californian Alexander Rossi knew that he was unique among the field of 33 drivers set to start the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. He grew up a Formula 1 fan, lived and competed for much of his life in Europe, and had never been to an Indy 500. “I had to be the only one on the grid who had not dreamed of winning this race my whole life,” he recalls.
It was only months earlier that he lost his ride in F1. As luck would have it, the Andretti Autosport team had a seat for him, so he began his rookie Indycar season in March at Long Beach. He was 24, and when he arrived in Indianapolis for practice, he had just three races under his belt—only one on an oval and zero on a superspeedway. He qualified 11th at 230.048 mph. Not bad, but there was no expectation among anyone that Rossi could actually win as a rookie.
“I was fortunate to join Indycar with a toplevel team,” he says, “so I could make the transition smoothly.” Getting used to the car on road courses was less stressful because an oversteer or understeer moment might mean a spin or going offtrack. But on an oval, the same thing might mean hitting a wall. “It’s like learning to fly an airplane,” he says. “You can’t learn by crashing the plane.”
At the start of the 500, with more than a quartermillion people in attendance, Rossi stuck with the pack, fighting in close combat. But panic ensued in pit stops when the team couldn’t get fuel into the car. Team coowner Bryan Herta had an idea. They would go off strategy and skip the last planned pit stop, which meant they would have to hit an insanely high fuelmileage number. “I didn’t think what we were doing was going to work,” Rossi says.
Nearing the end, when drivers started pitting for a final fuel stop, Rossi stayed out. He captured the lead, babying the throttle. “We were going to run out of gas on the last lap,” he says. “It was just a matter of where and how big of a lead that we were going to have when that happened. Could we coast across the finish line and have enough buffer to win?”
Rossi heard over his radio when he entered the final lap: “Half a lap lead! Half a lap lead!” On TV, the announcer yelled, “Can a rookie win the 500 on an economy run? . . . What a story that would be!” When Rossi’s engine started to sputter, he heard over the radio: “Full throttle! Full throttle! . . . Bring it home!” The motor died after Turn 3. Carlos Muñoz was chasing in second as Rossi moved through Turn 4, clutch in so the car could freewheel. He crossed the line four seconds ahead of Muñoz.
“Checkered flag!” Herta yelled over Rossi’s radio. “You just won the Indy 500, baby!” Through the television, fans could hear Rossi saying “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“It was about as close as you could’ve cut it,” Rossi says, looking back. “They calculated everything perfectly. And that is how a guy who was never supposed to win the Indy 500 won it.”