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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Alexander Rossi

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. In seventh place, Alexander Rossi leapt up to the top-finishing Andretti driver in the standings, won another race with a wreath, and firmly established himself as one of the leading lights of the championship in an entirely more comfortable second season.

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 11th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 7th, 2 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 23 Laps Led, 14.3 Avg. Start, 11.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 7th Place, 1 Win, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 99 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 9.5 Avg. Finish

In a single sentence, Alexander Rossi was the most improved driver of IndyCar, season 2017 – and it wasn’t even close.

Rossi’s on-track results grew exponentially as his embrace of being a key part of IndyCar’s present, and its future, grew along with it as the year went on. It made covering his sophomore season a joy as his proper integration into the series truly felt achieved this season, whereas last year it was a slower process negatively affected by poor performance.

That Rossi’s results were as good as they were this year spoke volumes of his adaptation to new circumstances. He had to learn the dynamic of working with a new engineer in Jeremy Milless and also lost Bryan Herta as his race strategist, but got a like-for-like replacement on the box in veteran strategy whiz and Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards. Milless, considering he was coming from working with Josef Newgarden on a Chevrolet kit at Ed Carpenter Racing, acclimated incredibly well to his new team and his new kit, even if the results took a few races to come good.

And interestingly, they could have been even better. As we wrote earlier this year, between a puncture at St. Petersburg, engine failure at Long Beachfueling issue at Indy and being trapped in a “Ganassi sandwich” at Texas, Rossi lost close to 100 points alone between those four races. But he went on a tear from Toronto through the Watkins Glen, with five straight races between first and sixth, capped off by another fuel issue-turned-recovery drive to win at “The Glen” and defeat Scott Dixon in a straight fight. Rossi ended 148 points back of Newgarden in the championship, P7 and top Andretti Autosport entry, but could well have ended as high as third – perhaps even second – had he caught a few breaks.

Where Rossi starred as much if not more so than on-track was in his development outside the car, and shaped up as a driver IndyCar was truly lucky to have. Rossi grew into one of the year’s more candid, insightful quotes – never missing an opportunity to explain something in a smart, refined, mature level. He performed some ambassadorial tasks, particularly in the run up to the Sonoma finale. He wrote some great blogs for RACER’s website. He bonded with friends and fellow drivers Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe, with he and Daly set to appear on the new season of “The Amazing Race.” He perpetually poked fun at Marco Andretti on Instagram. He coined his No. 98 car “baby girl” and never missed an opportunity to thank NAPA Auto Parts for their support; NAPA and Andretti Autosport rewarded him with a two-year extension at year’s end. His advice offered to teammate Takuma Sato before Pocono qualifying spoke to his selflessness and dedication to his team. Thanks for that should be extended to his personal assistant Liza Markle, who rocked it in her first year working with him this year, but also to Rossi’s family and close friends around him – particularly his dad Pieter who’s been there all the way.

Going into his rookie year in IndyCar, I didn’t know how to feel about the American driver who’d long pursued his F1 dream coming into the series in what felt at first like a last-minute, last-ditch arrangement. After the conclusion of his second year, for me anyway, now it’s hard to imagine IndyCar without him.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”