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Alexander Rossi More Than Just A Victory

Alexander Rossi celebrates in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Andy Clary Photo]

Alexander Rossi celebrates in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Andy Clary Photo]

by Steve Zautke

The momentum for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, actually started back in 2009, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicked off its Centennial Era. At that time, the sport was being dominated by Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves would dominate the Indianapolis 500 and many wondered what was America’s role in the future in open wheel racing?

2011 was the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 and the previous month in Long Beach, team owner, Bryan Herta, co-owners Cary Agajanian, Mike Curb and driver, Dan Wheldon held a press conference announcing they were going to run the “500.” Fans were excited that the popular Englishman had a ride for the month of May with Herta (BHA) and sponsorship was secured from clothier, WIlliam Rast which seem a natural fit for the fashion conscious Wheldon.

Fans remember the 2011 “500” as the race JR Hildebrand who had replaced Wheldon at Panther Racing crashed in T-4 on the last lap allowing Wheldon to win his second “500.” The upset win was a perfect setting for the 100th anniversary celebration. Sadly, Wheldon would lose his life in the final race that year.

Bryan Herta Autosport continued on with the popular French-Canadian driver Alex Tagliani in 2012 and later soldiered on with drivers, Luca Filippi and the aforementioned Hildebrand who had been released from Panther Racing. BHA hired rookies, Jack Hawksworth in 2014 and Gabby Chaves in 2015. However lack of sponsorship caused BHA to merge their operation with Andretti Autosport and hired the capable American F1 driver Alexander Rossi.

With talented drivers Josef Newgarden , Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball winning races on the IndyCar Series circuit, the outlook for American drivers seem bright. Add the experience of winning American drivers, Ed Carpenter , Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay helped the sport start to gain a bit of traction on a national level. Add Canadian James Hinchcliffe who is considered one of the best media savvy drivers of all-time, press conferences have become lively entertaining Q&A sessions minus the mindless sport clichés some other sports see.

On May 29th, 2016 saw the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, whispers among fans and media members alike spoke about the importance of an American winning the historical race. A win by Helio Castroneves or Tony Kanaan would be very popular among the fans in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, this event was very important to help gain on the momentum IndyCar racing has made the last several years with the casual fan and sports editors who many have turned their back on IndyCar.

American open wheel drivers have been struggling to gain seats in IndyCar and Formula One racing for many years. Although Alexander Rossi’s runs for Marussian last year were welcomed by American F1 fans, the general sports fans and media members yawned.

Thus, when Rossi joined BHA / Andretti Autosport, it made sense for the talented American driver to come home. Fast and steady all month Rossi listened and learned. With talented mentors such as Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti, by race day Rossi confidence and composure was at its highest level.

As Bryan Hera said, “For a rookie to drive with the poise he did in such a tough situation – I was telling him, ‘Don’t let anybody pass you but save fuel.’ He did it, a fine tribute to Alex (Rossi), Michael Andretti and the whole team.”

Rossi added, “”I am just so thankful to do this on the 100th running. I’ll cherish the fact that at one point we were 33rd and that we rolled the dice and we came through and we made it happen. It’s phenomenal.”

He won by 4.4975 seconds over Andretti Autosport teammate Carlos Munoz (whose last lap was 218.789 mph), taking the checkered flag on the 36th lap after his last pit stop. The usual fuel window for Honda engines is about 32 laps.

“I have no idea how we pulled that off. We ran out in Turn 4 (at the end) and we were clutching it and coasting down the back straight,” Rossi said. “Ryan (Hunter-Reay, a fellow Andretti teammate) was unbelievable in helping me get to the finish. He was giving me a tow at the end and it’s an amazing result for Andretti Autosport.”

Herta’s second trip to victory lane is sweet, once again, not a favorite but considered in the hunt. His strategy put in position for the Agajanian No. 98 to return to victory lane. Troy Ruttman and Dan Wheldon’s legacy lives on and I’m sure Parnelli Jones who was in town for the race was smiling.

Momentum will be important next year, as the Indy 500 returns for the 101st running, hopefully, these upcoming American drivers and terrific show they put on will sustain the growth. Additionally, Rossi’s victory was an important one, an American winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and showing young American drivers coming up, yes can win the Indy 500.

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Steve Zautke
Steve Zautke, a Milwaukee, WI native, was raised in the sport of auto racing. His father, Bill, was a movie photographer that shot racing footage at tracks such as the Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960's and 1970's Steve's first professional job in racing was as an Emergency Medical Technician at tracks such as Angell Park and Hales Corners Speedway (1988-1991). Steve has also worked for the Milwaukee Mile as videographer, in media relations and historian (1993-2011). Steve also has worked as a reporter for Racing Information Systems (RIS) and has written features for 'Vintage Oval Racing' and 'Victory Lane' magazines. Most recently, Steve has written a book on Road America for Arcadia Publishing. ( http://www.amazon.com/Road-America-Nascar-Library-Collection/dp/1467111457 ) Steve co-hosts "Sparky's Final Inspection" a motorsports-based radio show with hosts, Steve "Sparky" Fifer and "NASCAR Girl" Summer Santana on Sports Radio 1250AM in Milwaukee and is also available on the internet at www.Sportradio1250.com. A member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Induction Committee, Steve follows all types of racing from the dirt tracks to Formula One.