Just as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season was set to get underway March 15 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the 2020 season was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cars were returned to shops, racetracks fell silent, and drivers experienced their first spring without racing in decades.
The unprecedented situation forced all non-essential workers into their homes for weeks, and it offered race drivers time to slow down and have a retrospective moment about their careers.
Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner, said the time off due to the pandemic offered him the opportunity to put everything into perspective and return to his passionate racing roots.
“Ultimately, once we kind of moved on from St. Pete, it became clear that this was a much bigger thing than just us and INDYCAR racing and sports, in general,” Rossi said. “There was something that everyone needed to take some time away and kind of reset, and it's given me a huge amount of appreciation for what we get to do every week.”
A big help was the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, an iRacing series most NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers competed in for six weeks at virtual racetracks around the world. While some drivers took it very seriously, Rossi and his friends took more of a low-key approach.
“You know, to be able to kind of just get back to the roots of why we all fell in love with motorsports, racing and laughing and being with your buddies, it's been a lot of fun,” he said.
Rossi also said taking everything into perspective helped him focus on who he races for – the fans.
When the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opened June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway, it was a one-day show at the 1.5-mile oval, and no fans were in attendance. Rossi didn’t have to race without fans to know how much he would miss them.
“It's going to give us a huge appreciation for the fans,” Rossi said. “In talking to some of the (NASCAR) Cup guys, it's a weird experience, and I think that coming out of this we're all going to love being able to go to events again, love being able to share that with our fans and partners, and ultimately that's what I'm looking forward to the most.”
Rossi opened the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season with a disappointing 15th-place finish in the Genesys 300 at TMS, a race Rossi said he and his No. 27 Andretti Autosport team felt optimistic about in the moments leading up to the race.
Problems started on pit lane when they couldn’t get the car started due to an ECU issue. That resulted in him starting at the rear of the field. He then had to serve a pass-thru penalty in which he sped on pit road, forcing another penalty.
From there, the night was essentially lost as Rossi was several laps down and knew it would be nearly impossible to return to the lead lap. From there, Rossi and his team worked to salvage what they could. One positive the team took away from Texas was the team’s work on pit lane, which Rossi said they worked extensively to improve in the offseason.
“The fact we ended up 15th was better than nothing, and I think the one takeaway is that the NAPA / AutoNation team did really well in pit lane,” he said. “That was one of our big focuses in the offseason. This is a good step in the right direction.”
Now, Rossi has his sights set on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the GMR Grand Prix on the thrilling 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. The race on Saturday, July 4 (live on NBC) will go down in the racing history books as a part of the first-ever INDYCAR-NASCAR tripleheader weekend.
While INDYCAR has shared the same racetrack on the same weekend with the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series at Texas Motor Speedway, never has the NTT INDYCAR SERIES shared a weekend with the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which will race in the Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard on the road course after the GMR Grand Prix, and the NASCAR Cup Series, which will contest the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records Sunday, July 5 on the IMS oval.
Rossi, 28, has adapted well to oval racing after coming to INDYCAR from a brief tenure in Formula One. But five of his seven career wins have come on road courses, including his two wins of 2019, at Long Beach and Road America.
And while Rossi has never won on the IMS road course, he certainly has the success needed to give Honda its second win on the IMS road course and first since the inaugural GMR Grand Prix in 2014. In four starts, Rossi has three top-10 finishes, including a best finish of fifth in 2018.
And when he returns to the racetrack after a four-week break since the Genesys 300, he will still have that fresh mindset and appreciation for the opportunity he has to bring joy and entertainment to millions of race fans.