INDIANAPOLIS — Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly stared out at a hundred young racing hopefuls and saw themselves so many years ago.
The NTT IndyCar Series drivers have the opportunity this weekend as grand marshals of Sunday's annual Battle at the Brickyard to get up close and personal with about 200 young drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
They were introduced, shared their racing experiences and signed autographs on Wednesday for youngsters ranging in age from 5 to 16. These hopefuls came from across the country — including New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Colorado and Oregon — to drive a quarter midget on an oval track set up in an IMS infield parking lot.
“Anybody here from California?” asked Rossi, a Golden State native.
Much to his satisfaction, a few youngsters raised their hands.
The INDYCAR drivers were reminded of how they were once racing enthusiasts with lofty aspirations.
“Yeah, for sure,” Rossi said. “It’s hard to think back 17 years ago, but yeah, no doubt, like going to the racetrack as a kid with my parents is kind of what made me fall in love with the sport.”
Rossi, at 27, has solidified himself as a series championship contender — he finished second in the points last year and is in the same position this season. He burst onto the scene with a memorable triumph in the 2016 Indianapolis 500.
“How many of you are under 10?” Rossi asked, prompting several youngsters to raise their hands. “So you guys are all ahead of Conor and I.”
Both Rossi and Daly began at 10 in go-karts.
“We all started somewhere, right?” Daly said. “When I was young, I looked up to INDYCAR drivers as my heroes. I didn’t know I could be one of them.”
The 27-year-old driver from nearby Noblesville has made 45 career series starts with a top finish of second at Detroit in 2016 for Dale Coyne Racing. He recalled his early days, steering a go-kart at area tracks in Whiteland and New Castle, then branching out from 10 to 15 years old.
“I was racing every weekend all across the country,” Daly said.
That’s what these young drivers do.
Aidan Potter, 11, of Nashville, Tennessee, enjoyed having the chance to ask the final question of the interview session. As a diehard NASCAR fan who aspires to one day be like Hall of Fame legend Jeff Gordon, Potter wanted to know what these drivers think of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup stock car series.
“I wanted to be a NASCAR driver,” Daly said. “I had a chance to do a race in NASCAR Infinity. It was awesome, really enjoyed it, it was on a road course and not an oval. Either way, I wanted to be a professional race car driver, no matter what it is, INDYCAR, NASCAR, sports cars. To get to that highest level is the goal for everyone.”
Rossi’s roots took him to Europe in pursuit of a Formula One ride, but he appreciated Potter’s question.
“I love NASCAR, and when you’re a NASCAR driver, can you remember me and give me a pass so I can come to the race?” Rossi said. “Thanks, man.”
Potter is well on his way. In just his second season of driving in the rookie class, he won at Daytona and Texas this season.
“Last year, he wrecked at the end of finals here,” said grandmother Shelly Potter. “So Aidan is raring to go.”
Rossi and Daly enjoyed interacting with the drivers and imparting what they’ve learned from their racing experiences, be it how to develop a race day routine to the importance of training and learning how to figure out a car’s handling as soon as possible during a race.
Rossi was actually training earlier in the day at IMS, riding bikes with five-time series champion Scott Dixon as well as 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan, both of whom have also won the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s an off couple weeks for us, but we’re still pushing quite hard to make sure we’re ready for the second half of the season.”
Both drivers couldn’t resist needling a couple of their series competitors.
“In practice sessions, no matter what, you’re always going to catch Sebastien Bourdais at some point,” Rossi said of the four-time Indy car series champion. “He’s always going to get in your way, which is a shame. You’ve just got to avoid him.”
Daly smiled when asked about his race day routine for the Indy 500.
“Marco Andretti doesn’t wake up until 10:30 a.m.,” Daly said. “I’m up at 7:30 a.m. and talking to the engineer already.”
On behalf of sponsors USAC .25, Mattel, Hot Wheels, Honda and Honda Performance Development as well as INDYCAR, Danielle Frye presented both drivers with an honorary IMS brick.
“It’s not a Borg-Warner,” she said of the iconic trophy for the Indy 500, “but it’s still a brick.”.
The NTT IndyCar Series resumes action July 12-14 at the Honda Indy Toronto at Toronto's Exhibition Place. NBCSN will have the race broadcast July 14 at 3 p.m.