With just two races left in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES' season, Alexander Rossi is looking ahead to the 2022 season, where he will become the de facto leader of Andretti Autosport.
The organization announced Tuesday that Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had been with Andretti Autosport since 2010, will not return to the organization in 2022. That makes Rossi, an Andretti driver since 2016, the longest-tenured athlete in the stable.
Of the four full-time cars under the Andretti Autosport banner in 2016, Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz will not be part of the organization next season.
Typically, the longest-tenured driver at an organization is the implied leader of the team. While Hunter-Reay, the 2012 INDYCAR champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner, certainly had wisdom and insight to provide, Rossi said he feels he has already been acting as a leader at Andretti because of his proximity to the race shop.
Therefore, Rossi, who drives the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda, said his sense of leadership at Andretti Autosport doesn’t change heading into 2022.
“For the whole six years, I've been the only guy that's consistently lived here (in Indianapolis) and has been able to go into the shop and spend time with the guys, really kind of deal with things on a face-to-face basis,” Rossi said. “Ryan has to either fly up or pick up the phone; Marco was the same way. I feel like I've kind of already been in that role for a while. Nothing really changes for me going into next year.”
With Rossi and teammate Colton Herta the only Andretti Autosport drivers signed for 2022, it is expected that Rossi could welcome two new teammates next season. Rossi remembers how welcoming his teammates were in 2016, particularly Marco Andretti, and he looks forward to embracing the new drivers.
However, Rossi doesn’t see driver changes as a detriment to the team's overall performance.
“You've got quite a few days of testing to kind of get to know them,” he said. “There's continuity with Colton and I, (so) it really won't be a big deal. I think if it was just me and three new guys, that would be kind of strange. With only, theoretically, 50 percent changing I think it's not a big deal at all.”
With Rossi’s mind circling on how to continue leading Andretti Autosport next season as an elder statesman of sorts, the push to bring the team’s performance up to par could already be under way.
Last weekend at Portland International Raceway, Rossi finished second, scoring his best result of the season. Now, he is taking that feeling of confidence and optimism into the final two races of the season, both of which hold special meaning for him.
Rossi, a native of Nevada City, California, is heading to what he considers his home track: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, live on NBC). The track is where he saw his first INDYCAR SERIES race in person at age 3, and where he went with his dad to watch INDYCAR races until he was 10 years old.
Located three hours south of his hometown, Rossi fondly recalls collecting signed hats from Max Papis, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti and more. Those childhood memories blossom as he heads to Monterey, California.
Though Rossi has watched nearly 10 INDYCAR SERIES races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca -- his favorite viewing spots were Turn 2 and the famed Corkscrew in Turn 8 -- he has competed in just one race on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile road course. Two years ago, he started third and finished sixth in the race won by Herta while driving for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.
“That was where my passion for motorsports really began,” Rossi said. “Now, to be able to race there, in a lot of respects it's a great opportunity for people who weren't able to see me race when I was in Europe, they get to see me race now in kind of their backyard in a lot of ways.
“It's a very special event. I was thrilled when it got added to the calendar because of the nature of the track, but quite frankly I was lucky with Sonoma as well. It pays to be from northern California and race in INDYCAR, I guess. But I’m very much looking forward to this weekend, no doubt.”
Following this weekend, Rossi will stay in his home state for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES' season finale, which comes at arguably his best racetrack. The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is Sunday, Sept. 26 (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN). Rossi, whose 30th birthday falls on the Long Beach race weekend, has won the past two NTT INDYCAR SERIES races on the Long Beach streets.
Rossi dominated the 2018 and 2019 Long Beach races from the pole. In 2018, he led 71 of 85 laps, and in 2019 he led 80 of 85 laps. Over the last two outings at Long Beach, just shy of 90 percent of the INDYCAR laps have been led by Rossi.
“We've always looked forward to the street courses, and Long Beach is certainly no exception,” Rossi said. “It’s been a long journey. I’m glad we get to back this year.”
It could be a perfect end to the 2021 season for Rossi and the No. 27 crew, a combination is still looking to return to its dominating ways of the past. The seven-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES race winner said his team is hoping there will be moments of the final three weeks of the season they can capitalize on for 2022.
“I think that the positives, you can always build upon,” Rossi said. “You can always learn from the mistakes and the bad things. That's no different. Obviously, we're very much looking to 2022 in terms of the big picture of things, how we need to be better, what areas we need to focus on.”
With three strong races to end the season, a fresh feel to Andretti Autosport over the offseason and a continued sense of leadership for Rossi, the end of 2021 could just be the beginning for 2022.