INDIANAPOLIS – Questions were being asked before Alexander Rossi’s empty fuel tank had his car sputtering out of the final corner of the last lap in today’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
How could such an obvious unknown pull off such a stunning, life-altering upset to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”
Not to mention, as so many scratched their heads, how could a rookie conserve fuel to stretch the last load for 36 laps – 90 miles – and finish in front of several obviously quicker cars?
“Just pull the clutch and coast,” co-owner and race strategist Bryan Herta told his disbelieving driver over the radio in that final stretch.
“I was like, ‘What? OK,’” Rossi said.
As soon as the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda limped across the famed yard of bricks for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, the racing world started digging into the first Indy 500 rookie winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001.
Rossi? Another Italian? Is he related to MotoGP motorcycle legend Valentino Rossi?
No, the 24-year-old Rossi isn’t a foreign driver, although he made five starts in Formula One last year, one of just three Americans to race in F1 since 1990. He’s actually from Nevada City, California. He departed the Golden State at 16 to race in Europe.
Wondering about his future in February when he was without a ride anywhere, Rossi confessed he wasn’t even thinking about the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy 500. His first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn’t until two months ago, on Easter Sunday.
This isn’t where he expected to end up.
“No, it isn’t at all,” Rossi said. “But I’m ecstatic to be here.”
The first time Rossi watched an Indy 500 was, ironically, a decade ago when he thought Marco Andretti – now his teammate – was going to win as a rookie before Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. made a memorable late pass to prevail.
Rossi’s best finish in F1 was 12th. His best result in five prior Verizon IndyCar Series starts this season was 10th in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis 15 days ago.
In an Indianapolis 500 with a remarkable 54 lead changes and so many cars capable of winning, Herta realized his driver’s only chance late was to try to make the final fuel load last as long as possible. Herta realized he was asking for the impossible, considering most cars couldn’t stretch their fuel beyond 32 laps.
Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, two laps down, helped Rossi with a tow for a couple of laps. Rossi’s final lap speed was a meager 179.784 mph, but he finished 4.4975 seconds ahead of yet another teammate, Carlos Munoz.
About 90 minutes later, Rossi conceded he still couldn’t understand the magnitude of this “unbelievable” accomplishment.
“No, I still don’t,” he said. “I’m still on the last lap actually with Bryan.”
The plan was to save fuel but not to let anybody pass him. Easier said than done.
“I can’t overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I kept asking him to do,” Herta said.
Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti partnered with Herta to form today’s winning entry. Andretti previously celebrated this race victory with the late Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Hunter-Reay (2014). Herta won with Wheldon in 2011.
Munoz, third-place finisher Josef Newgarden of Ed Carpenter Racing and fourth-place finisher Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing thought they had positioned themselves for a shootout at the end. Instead, the closest competitors came away unfulfilled, to say the least.
“To put it politely, I don’t think they were quite as strong as us today,” Newgarden said of the winning team. “I don’t think they had as strong an opportunity to win at the end, so you’ve got to mix it up.
“It just sucks that we didn’t have a shootout where we could have raced each other because I really would have liked to have raced people. I would have been high side, doing something crazy to try and win the thing. I think that would have been a lot cooler.”
Kanaan couldn’t have sounded more dejected.
“This is Indy for you,” said the 2013 Indy 500 winner. “It’s not always fair. It will never always be fair.”
Munoz, also second in his rookie Indy 500 run in 2013, was equally despondent.
“One thing is clear,” Munoz said, “I will win this race one day.”
That Rossi did perhaps had him shaking his head as much as the competition.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” Rossi said.