Alexander Rossi was in attendance at Laguna Seca on Sept. 8, 1996, when Alex Zanardi made his legendary pass on Bryan Herta on the track’s famous corkscrew section, but he doesn’t remember it. After all, he was only 4 years old.
“What stands out is that’s where I fell in love with auto racing -- the cars, the fans, the sounds and smells," Rossi said Wednesday. "Back then they ran methanol fuel, and there was an interesting smell to that. Just being a kid and being able to walk through the paddock and everything. I had hats back then that were signed by Chip (Ganassi) and Max Papis. It’s cool. It’s cool that it’s come full circle.”
Full circle, indeed. Rossi, now 27, will attempt his own fabled pass, this one involving arithmetic, on Sept. 22. He is 41 points behind Team Penske's Josef Newgarden in the NTT IndyCar Series championship standings coming into the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, the series’ season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 22. Rossi has one goal -- to win the race.
“We have an opportunity if we win the race, which we have to do," he said. "I've been telling everyone really since May or June, you can't win this championship on two race wins.”
But you can win a race with one brazen pass. On the final lap of that CART PPG Indy Car World Series race in 1996, Zanardi blasted to the right of Herta heading into Turn 8, a sharp left-hander at the crest of a hill, then bounced past him over the curbs of Turn 8A, a right-hander that’s part of the corkscrew’s three-story drop. The move became known simply as “The Pass,” and further ingrained the nickname of one of the most iconic turns in racing.
Somewhere in the crowd was a kid who would eventually race for a championship there 24 years later. Rossi grew up in Nevada City, California, and his dad, Pieter, was a racing enthusiast. The visit to Laguna Seca quickly turned into participation in karting, and the rest is history.
Nobody, especially a kid, could have predicted what would happen.
“I don’t know that there’s that much logic for 4- to 9-year-olds, to be honest -- other than they were cool cars and it was fun and I wasn’t at school and I got to hang out with my dad and all that,” Rossi said. “Now I know, obviously, that the legacy of the track has an impact. It’s one of the most iconic racetracks in the world … but I don’t think any of that made an impact on 5-year-old Alex.”
Since 1996, Rossi’s path has been directly to the top. Five races in Formula One in 2015 led to seven wins in four seasons in INDYCAR, an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2016 and a runner-up finish to Scott Dixon in the 2018 championship. And Laguna Seca is where it all began.
“My introduction to racing is what really made me fall in love with the sport,” he said. “It’s a place that I’m coming back to 20-plus years later and racing in the same series that introduced me to the sport. There are a lot of parallels there.”
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 22. Television coverage will begin on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. PT local) with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m. local). Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).