When Alexander Rossi took the checkered flag in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 last May, I’ll admit I was more than just a little bummed. After months of buildup and hype for such a milestone event, it was just a little disappointing to have a rookie win the race on a fuel-mileage gamble.
This wasn’t just any rookie – this was someone who just a few months earlier had made it painfully clear that he really had no interest in being in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The only reason he was here was because his Formula One ride was sold out from under him at the last minute. Rossi’s interview on Trackside just as he was signed was telling. He came off as arrogant and aloof and spoke of IndyCar in a very condescending tone. To say I wasn’t impressed was an understatement. The fact that he was an American driver didn’t matter. He seemed more European than American.
I found myself cheering against Rossi in every race, hoping that he would see that IndyCar was not quite the joke he seemed to think it was. When the Month of May rolled around, he gave every appearance of wondering what the big deal was. He seemed to think that the Indianapolis 500 was just another race on the schedule. I don’t think I was alone during those waning laps last May, hoping that anyone else besides Rossi would win.
Rossi will now admit that he had no idea what he had done when he pulled into Victory Lane that day to swig the bottle of milk. Over the next several weeks, it seemed to hit him. Consequently, he seemed to get it – finally.
As the season wore on, Rossi began to loosen up a little bit. Though no one would ever confuse his personality with James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan or Conor Daly – Rossi seemed a bit more open with fans and the media as the season came to a close. Although it may be totally coincidental, his results improved near the end of the season as well.
After qualifying seventh at Pocono and having a good run, he was part of the three-car melee in the pits as he was launched just over the head of Helio Castroneves – resulting in a twentieth place finish. After that; Rossi finished eleventh at Texas, eighth at Watkins Glen and fifth at Sonoma. Those finishes were good enough to have Rossi finish eleventh in the final points standings.
This past offseason, it seems we may be finally getting to know Alexander Rossi. He seems much more comfortable and relaxed as he begins his sophomore season. He has now seen and raced at all of the tracks, except for Gateway. He knows the car and knows his team. Word has it that at the first race of the season last year, he didn’t even know most of the crew guys by name. He now has a full season under his belt and a solid year of getting to know his team at Andretti Autosport. Having his Indianapolis sponsor, NAPA, on board for about two-thirds of the races should also have a settling effect.
What has surprised me about Rossi is how he now embraces his Indianapolis 500 win. At some point, the full impact of what he did by winning the storied race has finally hit him. I don’t know if Donald Davidson gave him a history lesson or if AJ Foyt pulled out a wrench, but something got Rossi’s attention.
How do I know this? You can just tell. Call it a gut feeling, but you can tell by little inflections in his voice. A year ago, he spoke in a monotoned indifference about running in the Indianapolis 500. Now when he talks, you can actually sense some passion in his voice. He may be saying the same words as a year ago, but they sound different today – if that makes any sense.
But not only does he now seem to appreciate the Indianapolis 500, he seems much more confident now that his second IndyCar season is underway. That’s what familiarity with your team does for you. With such a late signing last season, Rossi had no time to get comfortable with his team, nor the team with him. There was very little, if any, chemistry between the team and driver.
We always hear drivers speak of seeking chemistry. That’s probably because on the rare times that true chemistry exists – the results are practically magic. We saw team chemistry on full display last weekend in St. Petersburg, with Sébastien Bourdais being reunited with engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson. The result of that reunion struck gold and allowed Bourdais to go from last to first in thirty-seven laps and to stay there for the rest of the race.
Good chemistry is just as impactful as bad chemistry. Some of the Andretti teams in the late 2000’s had bad chemistry and it showed. There was a great collection of talent, but they accomplished nothing because of poor chemistry within the team.
I’m starting to come around on Alexander Rossi. Having a quiet and reserved personality to the public does not mean you are devoid of a personality or that you aren’t worthy of being an IndyCar driver. To the public, Bill Vukovich was about as surly as they could come. But to his crew, he was a personable guy who had a warm side to him. He just had to get to know you and trust you before he showed it. But when it came time to race, Vukovich was all business. It could be the same with Rossi.
Now I don’t want a bunch of die-hards coming down on me saying that I’ve compared Alexander Rossi to Bill Vukovich. No I didn’t. What I am saying is that I was probably guilty of misreading Rossi last year; just as some fans were probably guilty of misjudging Bill Vukovich based on his public persona. But when he started winning and doing it the way he did it, his persona didn’t really matter
So, this year – I’m going to be a lot more open-minded when watching Alexander Rossi. I’m going to watch what he does on the track a little more closely than what he does off the track. Is that to say that I’ll give him a pass if he acts like a jerk? No, but I’m not going to judge him as harshly just for being shy. Jim Clark, Mark Donohue and Rick Mears were all notoriously shy. I’d say they all acquitted themselves over the years.