Opportunity to grow in year two excites Rossi for 2017 Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The thing that’s so exciting to think about for Alexander Rossi as he prepares to defend his title in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that he wants to be even better than he was as a rookie in his sophomore year for the entirety of the month.

Rossi’s win in last year’s 100th running from 11th on the grid has been written about to death, almost, and he’s been paraded through so many events and availabilities in the year since that’s almost hard to remember the preceding days that led up to race day and then-strategist Bryan Herta’s now-famous “clutch and coast” radio call.

Items such as Rossi not even having a primary sponsor on his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda until the Friday before qualifying, then Rossi getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout right at the end of Saturday, and his practice pace throughout the month are things that got overlooked.

For year two, while Rossi has enjoyed the accolades – and now has a proper sense of what he achieved and how his name and drive fit into all-time Indianapolis lore – the drive to improve upon the things he struggled with last year is a huge motivating factor.

“As much fun as it is to talk about last year, it’s time to regroup ourselves and prove ourselves once again,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “And there’s a lot of work we have to do to accomplish that, and be able to embrace the little things more.

“I’m now looking forward to a much different experience. One thing I’ll definitely keep in focus is Sunday morning itself, and just look at it as another race.”

By that line, Rossi noted the sheer magnitude of all 300,000-plus fans in attendance when walking out to the grid on race morning. That can be overwhelming and it definitely made an impact on Rossi’s viewing of the race, and understanding its scale in the greater sphere of the racing world.

When asked whether he wanted to be even better in traffic and qualifying, Rossi laughed and agreed as quickly as humanly possible.

“It’s all of that,” he said. “Now I know how qualifying works, so I guarantee I can do a second run. I still lose sleep over that because we had a Fast Nine car, and we should have been in the Fast Nine. I definitely want to make sure that’s the case come Sunday.

“I need to be better in traffic. It’s still something that’s uncomfortable to me.

“We were at the Texas test a couple weeks ago. The track has changed so much. And my engineer (Jeremy Milless) was like, ‘Dude it’s OK, it’s your fifth oval.’ And it’s weird.

“Because going into Phoenix, that was just my fifth or sixth oval race. Pocono we challenged for a win, Iowa we were strong, Indy obviously, but overall it’s still so super new for me.

“So it’s things like pit in and how aggressive I come in, needs to be better. I’m happy to have the amount of practice we do.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Rossi’s race title defense sees the notable changes of Herta to Rob Edwards, Andretti chief operating officer, as race strategist and Milless replacing Tom German as race engineer. Although Herta isn’t directly on the box for Rossi, he is still a co-entrant of the No. 98 car, which means he’s still an invaluable resource.

“It’s down in hour-by-hour decision-making, car direction and such as he’s on the 27 car,” Rossi explained. “But whether there’s good or bad things to note, or things I need advice on, he’s in the same truck. He’s literally an earshot away from answering any question.”

Edwards elaborated on how much more cohesive the Andretti and Herta team partnership is now this May, compared to when they were only four or five races into their combined program this time last year.

“Yes we’ve moved some pieces around. But particularly in early races, the Rossi/Herta merger was so new and close to the start of the year, we didn’t maximize the benefits of both,” Edwards told NBC Sports.

“The chemistry is there as we had the offseason to mesh. We could hit the ground running. With the continuity, we had the right pieces to move around. It wasn’t wholesale. It was good changes we’ve made.”

Edwards said Rossi had to endure a tougher learning curve last year because of that merger process, and he excelled in spite of that.

“I think last year was his education. Overall we weren’t as competitive, and it meant his learning curve was more difficult because of that,” he explained.

“Generally with his program, every race now we think we’ve got a legitimate chance of winning and being on the podium.

“Last year he developed off the radar because of how the season went. This year is a chance to realize what he learned last year.”

Rossi has the benefit of his five Andretti Autosport teammates to work with, in fellow winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, two near winners in Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato, and two rookies in Fernando Alonso and Jack Harvey. Rossi’s thoughts on Alonso are linked here.

Andretti Autosport is renowned for its “mini races” in practice with all five of its cars. Rossi described that process.

“No one wants to be in front – it won’t help because you burn more fuel,” said Rossi, whose final stint of 36 laps was as surprising as it was impressive last year.

“We all run to the back. We do a rotation, and each guys takes a couple laps. Inevitably then you’ll get passed.

“It’s funny now because other teams have latched onto it. Now with six cars and more, it’ll be a mini little race!

“Qualifying is wonderful, but it doesn’t matter where you qualify. Being with as many cars as you can provides the opportunity to be able to experiment.”

Rossi reflected on the whirlwind last year it’s been for him – from not having a ride as his Formula 1 dreams were put on pause, to the last-minute Andretti-Herta deal, to the ‘500 win, and how his life has changed as a result.

“For a year, I’ve been talking about something I’m truly passionate about – and that’s OK,” Rossi said.

“I so much love this race, and I’m so looking forward to going back. In 2017, we can talk about the 101st running and doing it again.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”