The 2016 Indianapolis 500 was the 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and, as such, one that every driver wanted more than ever to win. Going into the race, at least a dozen of the 33 drivers in the field might have been expected to take the checkered flag first: names like Castroneves or Hunter-Reay; Dixon or Kanaan; Andretti or Rahal… or Canadian racer James Hinchcliife, who started in pole position as the fastest qualifier, a year after almost dying in a crash at the same track.
Nowhere on most people’s list of favourites was Alexander Rossi, a 24 year-old IndyCar rookie from Calfornia, although he qualified 11th. Las Vegas odds makers pegged him a 66-to-1 longshot. But he won the race!
It wasn’t a picture-perfect win by the fastest car on the track. He got there first with the racing equivalent of a ‘Hail Mary’ pass – by staying out when all the front runners pitted for a final splash of fuel with less than ten laps to go.
At that point, Carlos Munoz, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan were in a tight battle for the lead, with Hinchcliffe not far back and Rossi behind him in fifth, having quietly picked up positions after his last stop.
Theoretically, he should have pitted again for fuel too. To make it to the end he’d have to go 36 laps from his last stop, while 32 laps was the accepted norm to provide a slight margin for error. In an all-or-nothing gamble, his team manager, Brian Herta kept him out, telling him to slow down and save fuel but not let anyone past. He did just that, running at about 180 mph in his final laps while those chasing him down were doing 220-plus and closing fast.
It was enough.
He did run out of fuel and sputter to a stop but not until he’d crossed the yard of bricks and taken the checkered flag in front of his pursuers. Munoz, Newgarden and Kanaan followed in that order.
It was the second Indy 500 win for Herta’s team and the number 98 car, which won in 2011 with Dan Wheldon driving (and my son, Todd Malloy as his race engineer; he was Kanaan’s race engineer this year.) It’s a number with a long history of winning that dates back to Parnelli Jones in the 1960s.
Long a single-car team, Herta joined forces with Andretti Autosports for 2016, which undoubtedly was a factor in Rossi’s win. Andretti’s team cars, which included Munoz, Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Townsend Bell, were among the fastest cars on the track throughout preparations during the month of May.
They were powered by new-spec Honda engines, which now seem to be more than competitive with the Chevrolet engines that have powered the season’s first five race winners.
In the winner’s circle, an overjoyed Rossi said, “I have no idea how we pulled that off – I can't believe that we've done this.”
While there’s no doubt the strategy played a major role in his win, it shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishment in getting into the position to win as well as getting into the car itself. While he is technically a rookie in IndyCars, he’s far from inexperienced. He’s been racing open wheelers for ten years and karts for years before that. He’s won 42 times in 209 starts in a variety of series that included five Formula 1 races last year with the Manor Marussia team and several years as an F1 test driver before that. So calling him a rookie understates his stature.
His decision to move to IndyCar rather than continue pursuing limited opportunities in F1 paid off for him big time! And it’s good for the series as well. It’s undoubtedly not the last we’ll hear of Alexander Rossi.