Alexander Rossi’s ‘Red Mist’ nearly powers him to Indy 500 victory

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INDIANAPOLIS – Race drivers call it the “Red Mist.”

It’s when a flash of anger in the heat of battle creates fierce determination. It’s like a burst of horsepower from a turbocharger, but it has to be unleased responsibly.

“A bunch of hungry, angry cars behind me,” Alexander Rossi radioed his crew while in the lead before the final restart Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Do they know I’m angrier?”

FULL INDIANAPOLIS 500 COVERAGE: All of NBCSports.com’s 2019 stories over two weeks in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

Rossi’s “Red Mist” was on full display during a runner-up finish in the 103rdIndianapolis 500. First, he was angered by Helio Castroneves Chevrolet impeding his progress in the race, screaming to his crew on the radio that Castroneves was five laps down.

Then came another botched pit stop by his Andretti Autosport crew when Rossi pitted on Lap 137. The crew could not get the fuel probe engaged into the Rossi’s fuel tank on his No. 27 NAPA Honda. It was the third time in Rossi’s four Indianapolis 500s that an issue in the pits played a role in his outcome.

It worked in his favor as a rookie in the 100thIndianapolis 500 in 2016 when it put him out of sequence to most of the field, and he was able to stretch his last tank of fuel for the final 36 laps.

It cost him a victory in 2017.

This year, it took away his strategy of getting superior fuel mileage to his prime competition — the fast, but less fuel efficient Chevrolets at Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing. Rossi could go longer on one tank of fuel than any driver other than Scott Dixon, but that advantage was wiped out after the fuel probe issue.

Rossi’s stop was more than 20 seconds long. He sat in his car in pit lane and pounded his fist on the steering wheel, screaming at his pit crew, “Every year!”

Andretti Autosport Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards, who handled the No. 27’s pit strategy, radioed back to Rossi and told him it was a fuel probe problem.

Rossi radioed, “Is IndyCar going to deal with cars that are five laps down appropriately, or this is a (bleeping) joke.

“Five Laps.”

Castroneves was actually three laps down at the time. Andretti Autosport tried to get Team Penske spotter Rick Rinaman to talk to IndyCar, to have Castroneves move out of the way.

It briefly got worse for Rossi, before it got better. When the yellow flew shortly after his pit problem, he was shuffled from first to fifth and lost a spot on the next restart.

On Lap 152, Rossi was driven all the way to the inside pit wall by Oriol Servia, nearly putting Rossi’s Honda into the wall. Rossi was livid when he came back to pass Servia, who was a lap down, on the outside of the frontstretch one lap later, shaking his fist at the driver from Spain while racing at over 230 mph down.

“This is the biggest joke I’ve ever been a part of,” Rossi radioed to his crew.

Edwards radioed back the team was “trying to work with IndyCar” to move Servia aside.

Rossi was blunt in his reply. “Do a better job.”

His fist-waving could be seen by the massive crowd approaching 300,000 fans from the grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They roared with approval.

“It’s utterly disgraceful and it needs to be addressed,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com after the race. “The guys one and five-laps down are blocking and it needs to be addressed. I’m going to talk to IndyCar about it. The rule is if you are a lap or more down, you get a blue flag.

“Defending at 200 miles an hour is sickening.”

Once he got by Servia, he passed Sebastien Bourdais for fifth on Lap 157, Conor Daly for fourth on Lap 164, and that would set up the battle for the race win with one pit stop remaining for the contending drivers.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud pitted on Lap 169 with a flawless final stop. Rossi pitted one lap later and was in-and-out after just 9 seconds.

On Lap 178, Rossi passed Pagenaud for the lead. Moments later, there a huge crash in Turn 3 involving Graham Rahal, Bourdais, Charlie Kimball and Zach Veach, and the cleanup brought out the red flag for 18 minutes.

When the green returned, there were just 14 laps left, and Rossi was determined he was going to win. His battle with Pagenaud was epic.

On the Lap 187 restart, Rossi was the leader, and Pagenaud passed him for the lead on the frontstretch.

Rossi returned the favor to regain the lead in Turn 1 on the next lap. One lap later, Pagenaud passed Rossi on the frontstretch.

At this point, Rossi decided to stay as close to Pagenaud’s rear as he could, waiting for the right moment to make what he hoped would be the race-winning pass.

With two laps remaining in the race, Rossi made the pass for the lead in Turn 1. But, he couldn’t build a large enough gap over Pagenaud. On Lap 199, Pagenaud passed Rossi for the win in Turn 3. Next time by was the white flag and the lap after that, Pagenaud took the checkered flag in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career by just 0.2086-of-a-second.

As Pagenaud celebrated the victory to the cheers of the huge crowd, Rossi spoke about his determined battle.

“We had the superior car, we just didn’t have it at the end,” Rossi said. “It’s going to be hard to get over, but it was a great day. There were a lot of lapped cars that wouldn’t move over. Fortunately, it didn’t make a difference in the end result.

“Blocking is disrespectful, but we will take care of that another day.”

Bruce Martin PhotoLater, Castroneves went over to discuss his issue on the track when he did not move out of the way.

Castroneves told NBC Sports.com that he was simply trying to “follow orders.” When asked if that meant to get in Rossi’s way, the three-time Indy 500 winner said, “No, no, no. They told me to race hard and that is what I was doing.”

Castroneves tried to explain that to Rossi, who looked at Castroneves and said, “What? You were five laps down.”

In Rossi’s fourth Indy 500s he has finished first, seventh, fourth and second.

After a round of interviews with local affiliates, Rossi had a chance to go into detail with NBC Sports.com.

“I was just trying to get it right, but we didn’t have enough top-end speed,” said Rossi, whose Honda was at a slight horsepower deficit while having superior fuel economy to Pagenaud’s Chevy. “There was a lot of disrespect out there by the drivers who were lapped. It’s disappointing that things happen like that.

“The yellow really helped Simon because he was struggling with mileage and we weren’t. We pitted from a very strong lead and had another fuel pump probe, and that is very frustrating. That’s three out of four years we have had an issue.

“That final yellow flag was what put the nail in the coffin for us. We knew the 22 car (Pagenaud) had superior straight-line speed and there was no defending that on the restart. I went for it with two laps to go and he just drove right back by me.

“It’s all horsepower. I didn’t lift for 15 laps and he drove right by me. When I got by him, it was three corners later, he was passing me again.

“That’s the way it goes. We hung it all out there and we are two-tenths of a second short.”

Team owner Michael Andretti had five cars in the Indianapolis 500 and ended with three cars in the top 10 led by Rossi in second.

He thought Rossi had to overcome some unnecessary issues on the track, including what he thought was blocking on the final lap by the race winner.

“That wasn’t good with Servia,” Andretti told NBC Sports.com “I don’t know what Oriol was thinking. That was disappointing.

“In the end, we didn’t have enough power to by Pagenaud. What Pagenaud did was illegal, but because it’s the last lap of the Indianapolis, I know INDYCAR isn’t going to do anything. He did three moves down the back straightaway. He went down, back, down and back. You aren’t supposed to do that.

“I told Alex he did everything right. We were missing a half-mile an hour there. He drove a heck of a race and has nothing to be ashamed about.

“Now, Roger Penske has another Indy 500 win so it’s going to be harder to catch him,” Andretti said of Penske’s 18thcareer Indy 500 win. “They did a good job. They dominated the month.”

Rossi would like to see one more adjustment of aero grip and one more step of tire grip because it’s still hard to follow another car.

“We had a really superior car to everyone today,” Rossi said. “Nobody was passing like we were. There is nothing more we could have done. It was great execution all day long, just didn’t have enough at the end.

“Simon defended three times on the final lap, but it was for the win in the Indianapolis 500. What do you expect?

“I’m not disappointed with the effort. It doesn’t change the end result, though.

“I’m just here to win, man. I’m here to win races and nothing else is really that important. I hope people get on board with that. If we put on a show and entertain people, that’s good for the IndyCar Series. This is my home now and I’m really, really happy to be here.

“Once you win one Indy 500, the desire increases dramatically. Now, we start thinking about the 104thIndy 500 and try to be even better.”

Rossi admitted he was happy for Pagenaud, who won his first Indianapolis 500. He started on the pole and led 116 laps.

“I’m not unhappy for Simon at all,” Rossi said. “He did an incredible job all month. He has busted his ass and committed himself to the series for so long. He is an exceptionally talented race car driver.

“He’s a great driver and a great guy. He’s going to be taking pictures in his suit and helmet all over the United States now. We’re going to be entertained by that, I’m going to get annoyed by it.

“Hopefully, we take advantage of his lack of energy at Detroit.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500