Ryan: Was Long Beach an Amazing Race? Well, it had Alexander Rossi

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Zipping around a 1.96-mile course that has validated the greatest that IndyCar has to offer, it might have seemed Alexander Rossi had time to soak up a picturesque Sunday.

Ahh, the sights and sounds of a sun-splashed day at the beach that also just happened to include a 20-second romp to victory in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Must have fun to absorb all that, right?

“I mean, no, (not) in the race car,” Rossi said with a tiny smile after winning his second consecutive Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

OK, so he might have been a little preoccupied.

Rossi, a former “Amazing Race” contestant who can respect the need to deliver an entertaining show, still wanted the fans to enjoy themselves, which he was pleased to see happening during his pickup ride around the streets of Southern California in driver introductions.

“It was amazing to see the kind of crowd reaction and the fan turnout,” he said. “Everyone looked like and sounded like they were having a really good time. (Runner-up) Josef (Newgarden) said, who knows if this is true, ‘I was looking around during the race, and no one left. They must have enjoyed it.’

“Good for him. I was not spectating on the spectators.”

If they had the right idea, those spectators (and viewers) hopefully were spectating on the guy wheeling the No. 27 Honda, which effortlessly floated through the corners with perfection for more than 90 minutes despite breakneck speeds and little margin for error.

If there was disappointment with the action on track, it wasn’t evident from the Long Beach crowd, which lingered en masse for the rest of the afternoon.

But there were some who seemed unhappy with a race that featured a single yellow flag for three laps.

A question was asked in the postrace news conference about what might add “pizazz” to the Grand Prix. And a check of IndyCar Twitter also revealed some suggestions on how to make the race “better.”

Tire degradation!

The race length!

Stages! (Uh. Wut?)

Here’s another idea: Appreciate the greatness of a budding superstar who might be remembered in the same breath as the last guy who whipped the field so thoroughly at Long Beach.

In 1995, it was Al Unser Jr. who won by more than 23 seconds in the last of his six LBGP victories that crowned the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner as “The King of the Beach.”

Among the multiple winners at Long Beach: Unser. Mario Andretti. Will Power. Alex Zanardi.

And now the Nevada City, California, native who turns his sights to another marquee event next month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Rossi, 27, already has his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy with a 2016 Indianapolis 500 win, but he probably should have gotten another sterling silver headshot for a starring role in last year’s race (despite finishing fourth).

Stephen King/IndyCar

The Indy 500 turns drivers into household names, but having a 22-inch bronze medallion on the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame has its iconic appeal, too.

“Very similar to the 500,” Rossi said. “You’re next to legendary names in the sport. That’s special in and of itself. When you’re in the moment and you’re just here to try and maximize what you can do, you don’t really think about the history of it.

“If you ask me that question in a couple of weeks, next year, it probably will have more magnitude.”

Thankfully, we have another multiple-time winner at Long Beach who can provide instant perspective.

Car owner Michael Andretti said just as amazing as Rossi’s victory was the Herculean lap Saturday that put him on pole position by nearly 0.3 seconds over five-time series champion Scott Dixon.

“What he’s done the last couple years is pretty amazing,” Andretti said of Rossi. “It’s really difficult to even get a 10th of a second advantage at this track. That’s why when he put that three 10ths on Scott, I was like, ‘Wow, that was a big lap.’ He’s special.”

And humble even though the thumping he delivered Sunday occurred during a competitive renaissance in the NTT IndyCar Series in which the first four winners of 2019 have come from four different teams.

“You just got to stay in the zone and stay focused,” Rossi said about leading 80 of 85 laps and managing a big lead (with a heavy heart after learning that morning of grandfather Donald Russell’s death). “A lot of mistakes actually happen when you try to go slower. You’re so used to driving at 10/10ths, you stay in that rhythm.

“You cherish those days where you can just kind of go out there, not have too much stress. They’re hard to come by. Probably happens once every couple of years. I love (this win). I definitely won’t get used to it, though. It’s certainly not something that is going to happen week in, week out.”

But we could see it happening more regularly for Rossi, which is why the sixth win of his career should be viewed as an entry point for witnessing his brilliance and not the exit point for “fixing” street course racing.

If you were watching Long Beach because you wanted to see nonstop dicing and passing for the lead, we’ve got nothing for you.

If you were watching because you wanted to witness the emerging greatness of someone who could be remembered as a generational talent … well, we got Alexander Rossi.

Maybe that’s enough?

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

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“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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