It’s Time To Rethink Alexander Rossi

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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.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “It’s Time To Rethink Alexander Rossi”

  1. I think giving him a break is a good thing…here was a kid who was so invested in his F1 dream that he spent most of his young life living in Europe and hustling to make it work and when he finally realizes his dream its unceremoniously yanked away from him through no fault of his own. So if he showed himself as being uninterested in Indycar or disappointed to be there is understandable – His life’s work to that point had been for naught…

    But to your point, something has changed in him…and in some ways its reminiscent of the classic movie trope of a big city guy who gets exiled to a small town and comes to realize that it’s home after all…Almost like Lightning McQueen’s story arc in the first Cars movie…

    On another note, you mention “The fact that he was an American driver didn’t matter. He seemed more European than American.” and I think that comes from spending most of his youth outside of the US. Listening to him speak, he doesn’t “sound” American – he sounds like someone who has lived in areas where English is spoken as a second language. That matters not to me but there is a faction of Indycar fandom who are vocal about “Merican” drivers above all and anyone without the down-home “aw shucks” mid-west accent/personality isn’t going to pass muster.

    It will be interesting to see how the coming years play out for him…I am coming to like him as well. I hope losing Herta from the radio doesn’t set him back…

    • Let me expand on my comment about living outside the US. In my career I have often worked with people who were military or children of service members who lived for extended periods of time outside the US…They were American but often not culturally American – especially the children who did not grow up immersed in American sports, TV and pop culture, so returning to the US for them was a culture shock…I suspect it was similar for Rossi.

  2. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’ll admit to a similar reaction initially after his first interview, but I also took some time to think about it from his situation. He’s not the first driver based in Europe to come to (the rather insular and niche) Indycar Series with the sense that it is a step down from the oft-aspired F1.

    Andretti clearly saw something worth his time and effort, and to have risen through the ranks to F1 does mean that you’re no slouch. Maybe there is something there. By Alabama, he was looking very solid and actually surprised me a bit in Phoenix. Mid-pack for a rookie with the tracks and cars not yet fully embedded in his subconscious was noteworthy to me.

    The Indy win was a bit of a fluke, I’ll grant, and the final strategy was born out of two poor earlier pitstops. Major credit to Herta and Rossi and the team for all pulling together turning a moment of crisis into a legendary win.

    I’m also wary of sharing the sentiments that echo still from the 1960s when ‘them furrigners’ came across the pond to race at Indy and be damned if they didn’t end up totally revolutionizing the sport in a scant 6 years. They didn’t kill the race, they amplified it. Rossi IS an American and is certainly talented afterall, but perhaps not in the hearts and minds of the sport or its fans at the time.

    As an Indy 500 winner, I felt compelled to warm up to him rather quickly and it seemed to coincide as you said with his easing into the role of ‘indycar driver’. We began to see more of his personality and in the post-500 coverage, we also saw how much the win meant to him as he crossed the line for the 200th time last year.

    Unless you run someone off the track to win or drink orange juice in victory lane, I fully respect the efforts and results of a race that everyone wants badly to win.

    I want to see compelling stories. I want to see the results of how drivers and teams deal with adversity under the spotlight.

    Rossi certainly filled that role immensely in 2016. I think he’s a great story and I’m excited to see what comes next.

  3. Well, at least he doesn’t drive for Penske or Ganassi……

  4. I was a little surprised of Rossi not knowing what he had done being an American. I realize F1 was his world but, c’mon man! He knew nothing about IndyCar racing either. He was culturally a fish out of water at first. It was just odd to me but the guy does have talent and I hope he does well.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I think Rossi is having a lot more fun than he thought he would in Indycar, and that is breaking through his personality (so to speak). Winning the 500 might have had something to with that…

  6. Jeff Petersen Says:

    He’s becoming a great ambassador for IndyCar. A couple of weeks ago he did an appearance on the NFL Network as Free Agency was starting. He was tremendously articulate and not only represented himself well, but was a true advocate for IndyCar. I think a lot of his early perception was a result of the F1 guard that was in place. Once he experienced the different ways of IndyCar and F1, that’s when the guards began coming down and the true Rossi appeared. I find him quite likable and am hoping he has a long and successful career, no matter who he is driving for.

  7. I admit, I felt the same after the Trackside interview and to a certain degree, I still don’t like that he didn’t want to be here (same can be said for Conor Daly).

    I went back for the 500 last year and was saw his win in-person. I left the race a bit “meh.” However, once I met him, albeit briefly, at Texas part 1, I was an immediate fan. He was much more personable than I thought he would be. I’m not sure at what point the change began but from my point of view it must have been sometime SHORTLY after the win.

    As someone without a favorite driver to pull for, I found myself cheering for him despite the Andretti alliance.

    What I know is that I’m glad he’s in IndyCar and I hope that he is for many years to come. It’s also great to see sponsors like NAPA and Castrol on his machine. It would be great to see more of those kinds of sponsors make their way back into IndyCar racing.

  8. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’ll give Rossi a pass, he is a racer at heart, but only because he said out loud what every body else is thinking.
    Every driver currently in IndyCar, with the exception of Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter, maybe Marco after seeing how his Dad was treated, grew up with dreams of driving in F1. Five years ago, American Joseph Newgarden was talking about his path towards F1. Dario Franchitti admitted he didn’t realize what a big deal Indy was, until he had WON IT TWICE.

    • I’ll disagree a little bit with one point you just mentioned. You are correct that Franchitti didn’t “get it” when he first raced at Indianapolis in 2002 as a CART crossover and teammate to Paul Tracy with Team Green. But by the time he won it for the first time in 2007, he already had a newfound appreciation for the race. He was an astute follower of Jim Clark and very much a student of the sport by then. He has said that missing the 2003 race due to injury was very instrumental in helping him “get it”. – GP

  9. I agree completely George. I wrote a similar blog in December about Rossi. I’ve certainly warmed up to him and feel he now wants to make his mark in IndyCar. Hope to see him here for years to come.

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