Alexander Rossi on track at St. Petesburg.

When Alexander Rossi was 5 years old, he remembers going on a trip with his father, Pieter, to a CART race at Laguna Seca in 1996. Like many kids of that age, he couldn’t wait to meet some of the star drivers and personalities from the series, pose for a photo and ask for an autograph.

“I remember as a young kid being at Laguna Seca and Bryan Herta and Max Papis and Chip Ganassi signing my hat,” Rossi said. “That is something I have ingrained in my head 24 years later. It’s what got me excited about racing and being a race car driver.

“Giving a little bit of that back is very important to me.”

Alexander Rossi with his award for Fan Favorite Driver.Today, Rossi is one of the many NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers who young kids want to meet and ask for an autograph. Even on a bad day, when Rossi sees a young child, he will stop and talk to them, pose for a photo and sign an autograph.

“Kids are the future of our sport,” Rossi said. “They are just really happy to be there. It’s cool to see. Lately, there are more and more kids at the track, and that is a positive thing.

“As far as adults, it depends on the day, depends on the session. Adults can understand if you are busy and have to go somewhere.

“Kids don’t.”

Taking time for the kids is one of the reasons Rossi claimed an honor he had no idea was coming. Andretti Autosport racer Rossi was named “Fan Favorite Driver” during INDYCAR’s virtual “Victory Lap” on Oct. 29.

“I was very surprised,” Rossi said. “I still don’t know that I understand why that happened, but it’s very cool. I appreciate everyone that voted for me.

“I would have been surprised, regardless. There are drivers with huge fan bases from countries. Takuma Sato and Pato O’Ward have entire nations behind them. Couple that with Conor Daly’s unique social media personality, it was a surprise.

“James Hinchcliffe summed it up best. In a year when 2020 was confusing to everyone, it would make sense that I won that award.”

Kids love Rossi because he is kind to them. Adults respect Rossi because of his fearless racing ability behind the wheel of the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda.

When he arrived in INDYCAR from Formula One in 2016, Rossi sometimes seemed cold and distant. Get to know him, however, and the driver from Nevada City, California, has a sharp wit, a dry sense of humor and an intriguing personality.

“I’m even unaware of it sometimes,” Rossi said. “I’m surprised they are, as well.

“I made it very clear I’m at the track to win, and that is all I really care about and is my motivation to get up every day. It’s one of my more cherished awards because it is one, I never saw coming.

“I have a huge love and appreciation for the Indianapolis 500, and a lot of people realize that and understand that and get to see that on display when I’m on track. Ultimately, it is very cool to get that in a year when fans were so limited in their access to INDYCAR events. I hope next year I will be able to say thank you to most of them in person and they will be at the track at St. Pete in a few months.”

Another important aspect in helping the INDYCAR fan base get to know Rossi is the popular podcast, “Off Track with Hinch and Rossi.” Combine the very funny personality of James Hinchcliffe with the cerebral wit of Rossi, and that’s entertainment.

“That’s a big focus for James Hinchcliffe and I, and we are seeing a lot of traction from that and that is a good thing,” Rossi said.

While Rossi has earned the respect and admiration from INDYCAR’S fans, the 2020 season was the first time in his INDYCAR career that the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 and perennial championship contender didn’t win a race.

From electrical glitches that didn’t allow his engine to start in the opener at Texas Motor Speedway, to other issues on the track, 2020 was not a good season for Rossi.

But he finished strong, including podiums in four of his last five starts.

“Some of them were our own issues and our own doing; some of it was bad luck, as well, but it was important for us not to say 2020 was a write-off and let’s focus on 2021,” Rossi said. “That’s not how things work. There was a lot of self-evaluation, and the team has done a good job of addressing some shortcomings and I’ve done some soul-searching of what I can do better. We have seen the results of that and will carry that into the offseason.”

That winning attitude is what pushes Rossi and will ultimately return him to victory lane in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. It’s also an attitude that INDYCAR fans admire.

“We need to understand why we weren’t getting the results and look to resolve that,” he said. “Everyone has taken a big step forward. If we continue to do that in the offseason, there is no reason we won’t start the offseason strong and move forward in 2021.”