DiZinno: Alonso’s arrival is 101st Indy 500’s magic bullet

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Much the same as in December when I got the Facebook message from my colleague Luke Smith that said simply “Rosberg’s retired!” I had to a double take this morning when I saw the “Mate, you’re not going to believe what happened!!” message.

Fernando Alonso. Running the Indianapolis 500. This year.

Really? Seriously? Yes.

Details of how the out-of-left-field deal came to be reality emerged a bit during conference calls with Alonso, Michael Andretti and Zak Brown today. Taking a long story and condensing it, Honda had an 18th engine lease available for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil that wasn’t filled, it was later determined Andretti Autosport would be the best fit, and Stefan Wilson had the inside line on the seat.

But just in the first two Formula 1 race weekends, Alonso and Brown had some meals, the two-time World Champion decided he wanted to run Indy and mountains moved between various parties to make it happen. Wilson, ironically, gets better PR value out of being the sidelined driver this race than he probably would have had he got the seat. Alonso was always going to be a bigger story and Wilson, much like his late brother Justin, is the bigger man for stepping aside as part of the process. It’s a hope he will be rewarded properly in the long run.

It matters not who was first in reporting the news when the news is this big, except for those who need the glory of saying so.

What matters instead is that the story is in fact real, not a belated April Fool’s prank, and that suddenly a race that didn’t have a magic story line has one.

Frankly the big question for the 101st Indianapolis 500 was going to be what was the big thing the race needed. Last year’s 100th running was always going to have the extra hoopla and drama associated with it. That the race was sold out and had a dramatic finish featuring a rookie’s unheralded shot at glory didn’t hurt, either, and Alexander Rossi has more than proven a worthy champion.

Without a new car though (that comes in 2018), or a big-name star driver though, the race fails to extrapolate much beyond its standard sphere of influence – this is to say in Indianapolis and Indiana locally, to the core fan base of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the one-off extra fans that come to watch this race either on television or on site.

Alonso at Indy though? That’s as Earth-shattering as it gets in the motorsports world. It’s on par with Nigel Mansell’s arrival in 1993 and the first occasion for a younger generation of a driver from Formula 1 actively leaving their day job for a shot at the single biggest race in terms of a one-day spectator total.

If Indy didn’t matter in the world sphere, Alonso wouldn’t have come. Period, point blank. And how he does will dominate the headlines beyond us usual web minions who cover the series full-time.

“I think the interest is very clear. It’s one of the best races in the world,” Alonso said during a teleconference today. “It’s very prestigious. If you want to be considered the best, you have to drive all type of cars. So after successfully winning F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in Indy 500, then one day in the future in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown is very attractive, together with McLaren and Zak.”

Zak Brown knows a thing or two about marketing; JMI was his baby and he needs a way to turn opinions back the way of positive press given the current struggles his new baby, McLaren, is having in Formula 1. And what better way to do so than with a stunner like this, which was remarkably kept quiet?

“I had a desire for McLaren to come back to Indianapolis,” said the American, who understands the magnitude of his brand. “It is a great part of our history. But we didn’t think the timing would be right to try to put together the effort.

“We started flirting with Fernando on the topic and he started flirting back. In Australia, we had breakfast with Honda, and he stated his desire to race triple crown of Monaco, Indy and Le Mans. He said I’d love to race with Honda at Indianapolis 500. We didn’t know the timeline. He had a real desire to race there.

“But we spoke the Monday after Australia. Hey you mentioned you wanted to do Indy… he said very. Let’s talk at China dinner. You thinking this year? Was it doable? He was very serious.

“We had dinner Friday in China and I laid it out in the table, he wants to do it, we think we could make it happen. He told me Saturday morning after sleeping on it ‘I want to do it.’

“We signed it last night from the airport, and here we are announcing it. We could not be more excited to run the McLaren Honda Andretti entry with Fernando Alonso. It’s an incredible day of motorsports.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi driver of the Andretti Herta Autosport Dallara Honda leads a pack of cars on his way to winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Andretti Autosport has six entries on its own, all of whom already had incredible stories anyway before today’s news.

To wit:

  • Rossi, surprisingly, goes for a repeat of last year.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay seeks his second ‘500, after losing last year thanks to contact with his teammate in the pits.
  • Takuma Sato has been stealthily good at the Speedway, despite a lack of results. Few forget his daring, if failed, attempt trying to pass Dario Franchitti.
  • Marco Andretti, going to break that eternal Andretti curse, nearly 50 years on from Mario’s famous 1969 win.
  • Jack Harvey, a talented rookie making his debut with Mike Shank, a popular team owner, making his Indy debut.

And now they add Alonso to this? If the old axiom of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is true, then all five of those other entries will be buoyed by the prospects of having one of the greatest drivers of his generation now needing to draw on them to help his debut, while all getting the extra PR value out of it.

Alonso racing Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya? That means he’s going up against seven IndyCar series champions.

And he’ll be competing against at least six other Indianapolis 500 winners in Dixon, Kanaan, Montoya, Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves (seven if Buddy Lazier makes the race).

Plus, from a rookie-of-the-year standpoint, suddenly the trio of previously confirmed rookies in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates Harvey, Ed Jones and Zach Veach can say if they win rookie-of-the-year honors, they beat Fernando Alonso to do so.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a massive positive for a race where one extra driver can make a big difference.

And for Alonso, it’s a masterstroke in terms of writing a chapter of his career where he knows he’s going into a big challenge, is taking it with open arms, and has the support of his team, his engine manufacturer, and one of the most famous last names in motorsport all at his side.

We don’t know where he’ll finish in May, but in terms of an announcement, Alonso, McLaren, Honda, Andretti and Indianapolis have already won.

Timekeepers: What winning a watch at Daytona means to a driver

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some gift them to family and friends. Some keep them for their children. Some put them in safekeeping.

Others wear them as a daily reminder of perhaps their greatest accomplishment in auto racing.

It’s the steel and yellow gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona (with a white dial) that has become synonymous with victory in the 24-hour race that opens the IMSA season.

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“Daytona is about one thing and one thing only: It’s just the watch,” said Bryan Sellers, the 2018 GTD Series champion who still is seeking his first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory after 13 starts. “You grow up in sports car racing knowing that is the one trophy you have to win before you walk away. You want to wear that watch to Daytona the next year, so that everyone knows you won it, or you want to wear it to the year-end banquet so people know you have won one.

Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon with their watches after their 2015 Rolex 24 win (Jerry Markland/Getty Images).

“That is a race that when you win it, your name is forever etched in history. There is something special about it. Everybody wants the watch. That’s all that matters.”

Since 1992, every driver on a class-winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and the race’s grand marshal) has received the watch, whose retail price starts at more than $10,000. Last year, there were 16 watches awarded to the winners at Daytona International Speedway.

Every winner has a story of what the watch means, and every driver still trying to win their first has a story of what they’d do with it.

Here’s a sampling of what the watch means to those racing in the 58th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


A.J. Allmendinger (2012 Daytona Prototype overall winner): “Yeah, I always bring it with me to the Rolex as a good luck charm to show me like, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten one before, we can still go do this again.’ For the most part, I don’t wear it, I keep it in a drawer that I know where it is at all times. If I’m feeling a little down on myself about my driving at times, I may have put it back on just to show like ‘Hey, you can get it one when it’s time,’ but I don’t wear it a lot, I wear it on special occasions and always bring it out just to show that you know it’s inspiration. I’d like another one for my other arm. Technically, I have to get another one for my dad because I promised him the first one and once I won it I was like, ‘No, sorry Dad, this one’s mine,’ but it’s there. It’ll always be in a drawer for sure.”

Townsend Bell (2014 GTD): “We lost the race in 2014 on a penalty, and the penalty was reversed two hours after the race. So we won the race and I won a watch. And then four years later, my watch was stolen when my house was burglarized. So just for one watch and one win, I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions just to this point, and I really look at it like I’m level set back to nothing, and I’ve got to go earn and win one again and having lost one through theft it makes me just as hungry as ever to go make it happen. … When I first won the watch, I brought it home to California, and I remember showing it to my oldest son Jackson at the time, and it’s one of the few things I’ve done in racing where he’s looked at something or held something, and I can tell he was proud and thought it was pretty cool. As a dad, that’s a great feeling.”

Andy Lally (2001Rolex SRPII, 2009-2011-2012 Rolex GT, 2016 GTD): “I actually have eight because I got three championships and back then they used to give you one for the championship. The first one is here and the other seven are gifted to people that have helped me out through the years. I gave my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my little sister, Mike Johnson, who was the car owner and the guy that put me in my first Daytona that helped me win the first one. My old soccer coach and the first guy to sponsor me in a car. He pulled me out of go karts and put me in my first race car. Those people have my other seven watches. I want to win more to give back. I love that moment because I give it to people who appreciate what this race is about and appreciate the Rolex brand and appreciate what that means, what that signifies, what that Rolex Daytona is and it’s special to me and I know it’s special to them.”

Joao Barbosa (2010 Daytona Prototype overall, 2014 Prototype overall, 2018 Prototype overall): “I’m planning to donate a couple of them when my kids grow up and probably when they have their own kids so it goes by generations. I have two kids so someday they will have their own kids, and it might be a good gift to give them when they get to that point.”

Renger van der Zande (2019 DPI overall): “I have a son, he’s 1 year and 2 months. So, if he behaves for 18 years and he’s responsible, he might get a Rolex from me. So I’ll keep it safe for then.”

Jeff Gordon, Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli, and Jordan Taylor, show off their Rolex watches in victory lane after winning the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2017 (Brian Cleary/Getty Images).

Ricky Taylor (2017 Prototype overall): “So when I won the Rolex in 2017, I never took it out of the box. I would leave it in the box and I would eat breakfast with it every day, I’d look at it, and it didn’t seem real. So I’d look at it and it would be there, we’d eat breakfast together, and then I’d put it away. That went on for about two, three weeks, and then my dad told me that we had a sponsor dinner, and everyone was wearing their watches, so I had to wear it. So, besides that one time that I wore it to the sponsor dinner, it’s never come out of the box. It hides in my office, and I want it just to stay exactly how it was the day that we won.”

Oliver Gavin (2016 GTLM): “My Rolex is now at home in a safe. I’ve gotten it out of the box once and showed my family. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to put this away for safekeeping. It’s now still there, in the safe. I’ve got relics from the Sebring 12 Hours in 2013. I want one more, then I’ve got one for all my children. That’s my goal.”

Ryan Briscoe (2015 GTLM, 2018 GTLM): “The first one was absolutely mine and I don’t wear a watch much, I’ve got a beautiful watch box at home. My dad gave me this rotating watch box so it keeps it going and so forth. My second one, I wanted to give to my wife. I had it sized for her. It’s a gold one with a white face and really looks good. So on special occasions, we will put our Daytonas on and go out.”

Sebastien Bourdais, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa celebrate with their watches after the 2014 Rolex 24 (courtesy of IMSA).

Patrick Pilet (2014 GTLM): “My wife she told me if I win a second one, she wants to get it so now I have a lot of pressure. I’m always proud to wear the watch and to show what is on the back of the watch with the Rolex winner is something really unique.”

Nick Tandy (2014 GTLM): “The watch is a trophy you can’t buy. You have to win it. It’s obviously symbolic of the race. A bit like the trophies at Le Mans. You can only get these particular trophies at Le Mans. So, if in years to come in time you can look back and show your grandchildren this particular trophy that happens to be a Rolex, and you can say you had to win this, no one can go out there and buy these sort of things- it’s something you have to work for.”

Kamui Kobayashi (2019 DPI overall): “I would not mind having a second one (laughs). This is why you always want to win these big races. The challenge of this big race, everyone wants this big watch. The watch is a special present. Everyone says it looks cool, but when you turn it around and it says Daytona winner, that is something even more special. To look at that, it is just crazy.”

Colin Braun (2014 Prototype challenge winner): “I have two of them. They’re both in my safe at home. I won them, and I just felt like, ‘Man, these are so special to me.’ I want to be able to take them out, look at them and put them back in my safe. I feel like if I wore them, I’d worry about scratching them, losing them. They’re just so special. When I won a second one, I would wear that watch because it would kind of be an everyday watch. I sort of fell back on that and said, ‘Man, this is special, too. I’m putting this in the safe.’ I don’t want anything to happen to it so if we can win a third here I’ll say that I’ll wear it, and hopefully, I really do.”

Simon Pagenaud (2019 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in five Rolex 24 starts): “Racing is also about the trophies and the jewelry that you get. I think it’s ends up being what you’ve done in your career and when you look at your rings and your watches and your trophies that you’ve won throughout the years, you remember racing moments, passing, actions at the race track, drama and you’ve got all these memories going through your mind. To me, it’s everything. It’s what my life is — its racing–  so obviously if I could get the watch that would be a very special gift.”

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in two Rolex 24 starts): “I have (an Indy 500 ring), a watch would be great. I don’t know if there’s a race that gives out a necklace if you win but if there is, that would probably be the next on my list.”

Helio Castroneves (three-time Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in four Rolex 24 starts): “I think the jewelry combination would be perfect. Ring (from the Indy 500) and watch together. It would just complete one of the goals that I want. You’re talking about Daytona 24 Hours, and the Rolex would be an incredible asset to have right here (points at wrist).”

Courtesy of IMSA