For most drivers, winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 would be a big enough moment to justify a career, let alone a rookie season. But Alexander Rossi is no typical rookie.
Rossi clutch-and-coasted his way to an improbable victory in front of over 350,000 people in his first Month of May, but the Andretti Autosport driver has still seen room for improvement throughout his rookie year.
Coming from a Formula 1 background –Rossi still serves as a reserve driver for Manor F1 Team– the Californian returned to America with a newfound opportunity and high hopes for his first Verizon IndyCar Season. However, while his No. 98 Andretti Autosport team has often shown speed, a litany of issues both unavoidable and self-inflicted and Honda’s struggles have left the 24-year-old fighting an uphill battle as he completes his first IndyCar tour.
Rossi enters this weekend’s season finale sitting 11th in the series standings and with an uncertain future as he entertains potential offers from both IndyCar and F1 teams.
Frontstretch’s Aaron Bearden caught up with Rossi shortly before the penultimate event at Watkins Glen International to discuss his rise from California to F1, his thoughts on his first IndyCar season, his unique use of Instagram and his aspirations for the future.
Aaron Bearden, Frontstretch: You have a unique background compared to others in IndyCar or really anywhere else, starting in the US and transitioning overseas before returning. How was that process growing up?
Alexander Rossi: My goal from my first go kart race was to race in Formula 1. We knew that in order for that to happen, that I had to be racing in Europe.
After I got through my phase in go karts and started racing formula cars stateside, I was already looking for opportunities to go to Europe and race over there. We really didn’t know much about it, and we didn’t feel that it was a good thing to be in until we knew that I was ready, and could be successful over there.
Really, that turning point came in 2008, when I won not only the Formula BMW Americas championship, but the world championship as well. That was against the best guys that had come out of go karts that were in formula cars from all around the world. I knew that I could compete on the same level as them, so for 2009 we decided to go racing in Europe, and I had been there ever since up until February.
Bearden: Interesting. You were still in America for a large portion of your childhood. Did you watch IndyCar at all? Was the series ever on your radar?
Rossi: I grew up watching CART at Laguna Seca, and I think like most people it all got very confusing. I still paid a lot of attention to Champ Car, because Formula BMW was the support series for that, but the actual IndyCar, IRL or any of that I didn’t watch.
I would watch the (Indy) 500 every now and again. I really started watching it quite a bit in the past five-six years. Since 2010 I think I’ve watched every 500.
So yeah, there was a time where I didn’t follow it. Growing up Formula 1 was the main thing that I would watch every race. It was a huge part of my life, waking up a 4 a.m. to go downstairs and watch it.
Bearden: You made it all the way to Formula 1, but found yourself transitioning to IndyCar this season. I talked with Max Chilton earlier this year and he said that was a difficult transition. Was that a tough step for you?
Rossi: I wouldn’t say it’s been difficult, but it’s definitely been different. There’s been a lot of things that’ve been new to me.
The biggest thing has been all of the new tracks. I went into the season only knowing two of them, so the rest have been a huge learning experience on the weekends, and the ovals have been a big learning curve as well.
The championship is… Anyone who looks at it from the outside knows that it’s competitive, but you don’t know how competitive it is until you actually compete in it. That’s something that was a pleasant surprise.
I’ve enjoyed the championship a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of people think that relates only to the Month of May, but I said that even coming off of my first weekend at St. Petersburg. It was a horrible weekend for us performance-wise, but I really enjoyed the championship from day one, and it’s been a lot of fun up until this point.
Bearden: You mentioned the competitiveness of the series. There are a lot of differing perspectives on the IndyCar Series. Now that you’ve had nearly a full year in it, what do you think about the level of competitiveness and challenge within the series?
Rossi: It’s massive. One reason is because there are a lot of very talented guys, and the second reason is because there are a lot of guys that’ve been in it for a very long time. When you go to the same tracks and you have anywhere from seven to 12 years of experience on these tracks in these types of cars, everything flows and everything is kind of second nature.
I think it’s a combination of two things. The teams are all incredibly professional, and I think the championship has done a great job for the most part —in my experience, at least- in keeping all of the cars equal and having the two manufacturers be very competitive against each others, and I’m saying that being on a team that I think has a slight disadvantage.
There’s a multitude of reasons as to why it’s so competitive, but it’s definitely by far one of the more competitive championships in the world.
Bearden: You had a difficult start to the season, but really began to turn things around entering the Month of May. How important would you say that month was for your year and self esteem?
Rossi: I think that’s been our only positive event, honestly I think it’s been a pretty big disaster for the rest of the season post-May. We’ve all had our fair share of issues on the team. I think that’s pretty obvious and public at this point.
I think there’s a huge amount of potential, but it’s just been one thing after another. There were some huge opportunities missed, but I think the final weekends of the season will be strong for us.
I think we really need to capitalize to finish the season out, because I don’t want to end the year just having the Month of May to have as an anchor for the season. I don’t think that’s good enough. We really need to make sure that we dot our i’s and cross out t’s before the final races because we have a big opportunity to get some big results.
Bearden: You had a scary incident with Helio Castroneves at Pocono Raceway, and looked somewhat shocked afterward. What goes through your mind after an incident like that?
Rossi: I wasn’t shocked. I was pretty upset – still am. I think the first thing that goes through your mind is you want to make sure the party involved is okay. As soon as you know that, then you’re upset about the incident.
That’s something that I felt was out of my control, ending a potential race-winning ride. Everyone was pretty upset, and I think we all had a right to be. I’m sure we all have an opinion on it, but it felt like something that could be important.
Bearden: This time of year we’re both remembering the late Justin Wilson and mourning the recently-passed Bryan Clauson. Given everything that’s happened, how do you feel about the state of safety in the cars you race in?
Rossi: I feel pretty good about it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I think, like everything in life, there’s a constant development. Alternate solutions always need to be looked at, but at the same time nothing’s ever been accomplished by rushing into something out of a reactionary purpose.
I think that there’s a lot of incredibly smart people. I was teammates with Jules [Bianchi] in Formula 1 when he had his fatal accident in 2014, and that was a very difficult period of time for me.
I’ve seen the steps that the FIA has been making over in Europe to try to come up with a solution, and I know that INDYCAR is doing a similar thing after Justin last year.
I’m sure there’ll be a correct solution in due time, but at the same time I wouldn’t ever want the people in charge of that to be rushing things. I think that will come in its due course.
Bearden: Let’s shift course back to the Month of May. I want to get your perspective on the Indianapolis 500. It’s a big month for American racing, we consider it among our crown jewel events, but I know you’ve ran a lot of other big events including the 24 Hours of LeMans. How would you say the Indy 500 stacks up to some of those other races you’ve been involved with?
Rossi: It dwarfs everything. There’s nothing that even remotely comes close. I think LeMans was one of the bigger events that I’ve been a part of, and the Grand Prix of Mexico from a numbers perspective was also pretty massive, but I’ve never experienced anything like Indy.
Not only in the month leading up, but specifically from Sunday morning morning at 6 a.m. on I’ve never been surrounded by the kind of energy and atmosphere.
Just having the opportunity to be on the grid at noon on that Sunday for the 100th Running was pretty spectacular regardless of what the end result was. It was something that I’ll remember just as much as the win itself – the feelings and emotions that I had on the grid for those 15 minutes.
Bearden: I know you had a good car going into the race. You qualified relatively well (11th) and showed speed all month, but what were your expectations going into the 500? You only had one oval race under your belt, and were racing against some of the best drivers in the world…
Rossi: I go into every race planning on winning. Obviously, you’re right. The percentages are pretty low, but I knew the car was good.
I thought 11th was a lot lower than where we should’ve started. I thought we had a front row car and missed it on qualifying day because we only did one our run and didn’t go back out to ascend our Fast 9 qualifying position. That was frustrating, but I knew based on Carb Day and how the car was in traffic that we’d do pretty solid.
I really knew the car was good after the first stint. When you’re able to race and pass with relative ease guys like Will (Power) and Scott (Dixon) you know your car’s good. Really for me the first stint was just about finding my feet and experiencing what racing around there was like because I’d never done anything like it before and the last thing I wanted to do was take any unnecessary chances.
I knew from that first stint that I could do basically whatever I wanted with the car. From there it was about going forward. I had three teammates that were in the same car as me that were at the front, so I knew I could get there.
We all know what happened after that, but I felt really good about our chances going in, at least in terms of performance. You never think you’re going to get it right with strategy just because, I mean we all saw how I ended up winning it. It’s not the way you think you’re going to end up winning the race most of the time you do it.
Bearden: Well your team nailed the strategy flawlessly. With as big of an occasion as the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 was, how much has winning that race changed things in your life in the months afterward? You’ve had three months to soak the win in and for the hype to die down. Has your life really changed?
Rossi: There’s a two-part answer to that question. My life as a human being I don’t think has changed that much. My life as a professional racing driver has definitely taken a new direction.
There’s been opportunities presented that I never thought would come to me. Doors have been opened that I really didn’t know existed, so from that standpoint things have changed a lot. I’m part of IndyCar history in a way that I wasn’t expecting to be, at least in month three of this journey.
I think from a professional side things have changed definitely. In every day life, a couple more people recognize you here and there, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same as its always been.
Bearden: I’ve gotta know if what they say is true. Is that milk in victory lane the best tasting drink out there?
Rossi: It’s pretty hard to beat, for sure. I think the milk after it’s on your suit for six hours and you’re still in your suit isn’t so hot. You’re not a huge fan of it at that point. But definitely in the moment it’s a pretty special thing.
Bearden: Going back to what you said about opened doors, you’re still a reserve driver for Manor F1 Team, and we’re coming up on the end of the IndyCar season. Has anything come to fruition for you? You may not discuss any absolute details, but do you have a general idea of what you’re doing next year at this point?
Rossi: I don’t. I mean, I have an opinion of where it’ll go. Manor came to me before the summer break and asked if I’d be interested in finishing out the rest of the F1 championship starting in Germany a couple weeks ago and I wasn’t willing to do anything that conflicted with my obligations to Andretti Autosport and IndyCar.
Frankly, I didn’t really want to. I feel like we have the opportunity to to a good job and finish the season on a high note.
Once Sonoma happens my schedule is kind of filled with the remainder of the F1 season as I’m still the reserve driver, but I won’t be driving the car. I can tell you that for sure.
As for next year, we’re in talks with, in respect, IndyCar, and we’re looking at doing something. This time of the year is always hard. There’s a lot of conversations that are had and not a whole lot of end result until you kind of get to September and October. It’s just a lot of speculation at this point.
Bearden: I want to touch on something you do that’s interesting. You approach Instagram in a unique way, posting pictures with lengthy explanations of your results and thoughts. What led you to take that approach with your fans?
Rossi: I don’t know when it started, but there would be a lot of people asking questions about specifics. From a practicality standpoint it’s very difficult to respond to everyone, and if you can’t respond to everyone then you don’t want to just respond to one or two and leave other people hanging.
We thought, myself and the people involved n the media side of what I’m doing, thought it would be a good idea to give them my thoughts and the explanation of the weekend, the confession of the day or whatever it was so people could have the insight. In interviews at the track there are questions that are asked that either:
A) You can’t really answer, because there’s information that you don’t want to have shared or
B) Depending on when the interview is you’ve either had a good session or a bad session and you don’t necessarily want to give away too much.
I felt that at day end, when pretty much everyone is done with everything, was the best opportunity to give people that are interested in following along an insight to what actually went on that day.
Bearden: You’re sitting just outside of the top 10 in points. You touched on it a bit earlier, but how would you say your season’s gone to date?
Rossi: Not good. It’s not good enough by my standards. It’s not good enough by any real metric. We have one race win.
I think the street courses were really a challenge for the whole Andretti Autosport organization. That’s no secret, so I’m glad we’re done with those. But I think there’s been quite a few things throughout the year where we’ve just… Things have gone wrong.
We don’t need to discuss Pocono anymore, but that was fairly obvious. At Mid-Ohio we had a refueling issue again. At Phoenix we had a podium, but there was a mistake in pit lane and we didn’t pit, then there was a penalty. Long Beach, we were in the top seven and the car turned off in pit lane with an electrical issue. I could go on and on.
I think there’s been moments with pace for sure, and I think that’s gotten a lot stronger throughout the second half of the year. I think for me to consider this season as a success we want these last three races to be good. We want at least a win, or to run in the top five. I think that’s attainable based on how we’ve been in testing. We just have to make sure there aren’t any mistakes.
Bearden: It’s been a tough year for Honda, though whether that’s because of their struggles or the strength of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing is debatable. Has that changed the way you look at your season, or do you still expect the best?
Rossi: I always expect the best from myself regardless. At the end of the day I’d like to be the top Honda driver. I think that is possible. I think that needs to be a target that we set. You want to be not only the best Honda driver, but the best Honda driver by a decent amount.
There are some configurations and some tracks where we simply are at a huge disadvantage, mostly short ovals, just because our low-downforce package is not as efficient as Chevrolet’s. But the rest, I think it’s no secret that there’s been other Honda teams that are dropping, and we need to be aware of that and focus not only on ourselves but on Honda’s success in the future.
Bearden: Regardless of how your season ends, you’ll always have the incredible moments from May and this rookie season to look back on. How grateful are you towards Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta after this journey?
Rossi: It’s been huge. It blows my mind that Michael (Andretti) called while I was sitting in England about 15 minutes away from an F1 factory and asked if I’d be interested in driving an IndyCar. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered for 2016, but when he called and explained the situation there was an immediate interest. That I’m eternally grateful for.
Working with Bryan has also been amazing. He’s been someone that’s contributed to minimizing this learning curve as much as possible, and to be able to rely on him and Michael is a pretty great thing for any rookie. And even beyond that, every time I’m at the track with Andretti in terms of the working environment, it’s fun. All four drivers really get along. We have a great time together, push each other and there’s a huge effort to really help one another from a development standpoint. That’s just the way the team is run. That’s why more often than not, you see that if we’re progressing in a positive way then all of the cars are going forward, and I think it’s a really positive way to work and something that’s really new to me.
Bearden: How big of a change is that from your Formula 1 background? Do the teams mostly operate by themselves?
Rossi: No, it’s a little bit of a misconception. If you have two cars, then you definitely share information. But I wouldn’t say the drivers communicate that much.
You always know what setup the other car is on. You have access to the data, there’s a lot shared for sure. But if you as a driver figure something out, you’re definitely not going to tell the other one. That’s a little bit different than here.
Bearden: Wait, you mean Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton aren’t the best of friends off-track? I’m shocked. All joking aside, thanks for your time today, Alex. I appreciate it.
Rossi: No problem. Thanks for having me.