Alexander Rossi

INDIANAPOLIS – How did Alexander Rossi prepare for the dramatic fuel-saving run that carried him to victory in Sunday’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil? By nearly running out the night before.

Rossi was headed to the Andretti Autosport team dinner party on the eve of the historic race. An admitted risk taker when it comes to pushing passenger vehicles’ fuel tank limits, the 24-year-old Verizon IndyCar Series rookie said today he was precariously close to running dry.

But just as in his amazing 36-lap run to the checkered flag on a single load of ethanol to win Sunday’s epic race, Rossi made it to the dinner without the need of a splash and go.

“I was at zero miles to the gallon and I needed two miles to get to the exit, so I guess I got some practice in my Honda Pilot. Buy one, they're amazing,” Rossi said today following the traditional winning driver’s photos, complete with the winning car and Borg-Warner Trophy on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yard of bricks.

“I like to see how far I can go (on a tank of fuel), but I would never imagine doing that in a race, specifically the Indy 500, for a win. I tried to turn off the air conditioning in the race car (to save fuel),” he joked, “but I couldn't find the switch.”

How Rossi, in just his sixth series race and second on an oval, gained the knowledge to save enough fuel in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda to travel those final 90 miles Sunday was a prime topic today. Some of the wisdom came almost by accident – literally.

“I was experimenting out there, and it was actually a little bit of a fluke that I figured out how to save the most,” Rossi said. “I had a big moment in Turn 2 and I had to bail out of the throttle quite a bit behind Scott (Dixon). I came across the line and I was still behind Scott quite close, and the fuel (mileage target) number was above what I needed.

“I was like, ‘All right.’ Not that I want to try and end up in the wall in Turn 2 every lap, but I figured out a technique that worked quite well.”

It did. Rossi squeezed enough miles out of the 18.5-gallon tank to reach the finish while the other leaders had to make late stops for a splash. Many didn’t notice, the native Californian said, but he had been in fuel conservation mode the entire second half of the race after a lengthy pit stop due to, off all things, difficulty getting fuel into the car.

“What a lot of people think when they hear I was running out of fuel (at the end of the race), they think it was something that I had to adjust for on the last like two or three laps,” he said. “But this was a decision that was made 90 laps prior. I was in fuel conserve mode from that point, all the while trying to maintain and advance my position. It was a pretty tricky end to the race.”

There may also have been a bit of divine guidance involved. Andretti and Bryan Herta are co-owners of the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian car Rossi drove to Victory Circle. The late Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 for Andretti on May 29, 2005; he won it again driving for Herta on May 29, 2011.

Rossi won on May 29, 2016, driving the same No. 98 Wheldon rode to victory five years ago when another rookie – JR Hildebrand – nearly won the race by going the final 36 laps on a tank of fuel, until Hildebrand crashed exiting Turn 4 on the last lap.

Did Wheldon have a hand in Rossi’s Indianapolis 500 destiny from above?

“I’m not going to discount it,” Herta said.

“Maybe, it’s possible,” Andretti added. “This place is hard to explain. As Marco (Andretti) said the other day, this place picks the winner. It’s funny how it works out.”