Alexander Rossi recalls 2016 Indy 500 victory; last year’s disappointment

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Before the morning of his May 29, 2016 victory in the 100th Indy 500, Alexander Rossi had no idea what the race meant and how much it would impact his career.

During an insightful sitdown (watch the full interview in the video above) with NBC Sports’ Marty Snider for today’s Indy 500 prerace show (1 p.m. ET, NBC), the Andretti Autosport driver went in-depth on why Indianapolis Motor Speedway was so life-altering.

“I knew nothing about tracks, nothing about ovals, nothing about the team,” Rossi said about beginning his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series four years ago after a stint in Formula One. “I was trying to absorb as much as I can as possible. And then Race No. 4, the Indianapolis 500 comes about, and I was forced to learn very quickly about IndyCar and what it means.

“It was amazing how it worked out. That gave us the introduction to NAPA and allowed me to develop relationships with (team owner) Michael (Andretti), Bryan (Herta) and Honda.  It’s amazing looking back how that day kind of completely changed the course of my career forever. And it’s pretty remarkable.

THE 104TH INDY 500How to watch Sunday’s race on NBC

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Before winning the iconic race with a fuel mileage gambit, Rossi said he had watched the Indy 500 but never attended the race or watched the winner’s celebration. He laughs now about photos that show him looking bemused after the victory because “it’s a perfect representation of that race and that year.”

“I didn’t have this idea of what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “It was my fourth IndyCar race, and I’d never been successful in a normal IndyCar race. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was a very strange situation. I pray I get the opportunity to do it again.”

He nearly did last year, finishing second to Simon Pagenaud in a thrilling finish that he told Snider was the most gutting and disappointing result of his career.

Alexander Rossi Indy 500
Alexander Rossi will start ninth in the 104th Indy 500 after winning in 2016 and finishing second last year (James Black/IndyCar).

“I think more about last year more than 2016 about what could I have done differently,” Rossi said. “That sticks with you even more than the one I won because it’s the one that kind of got away.”

What he remembers most about the 2016 victory actually was the buildup and “the hour and a half before you get in the car. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. Understanding that elevates (IMS) above just being a racetrack.”

Rossi, who is starting ninth in today’s race, told Snider that he hopes that the 104th Indy 500 (which is being held without fans for the first time) is won by a former winner because “I’d hate for someone to feel like they missed all that comes with this event” when there is a crowd of 300,000.

“A lot of people talk about drivers who have been here 10 years trying to win it and the huge emotional relief that comes with that,” Rossi said. “But I think there’s something pretty unique for the guys who have won it. They know what that’s like and every year they don’t achieve it, it sucks even more.

“This is the one race on earth for an entire year, you’re celebrated for what you accomplished. A lot of other tracks, you win and are the hero until Monday or Tuesday, then everyone focuses on the next event. This one is literally 12 months. It seems every month you’re getting some award or honor, and it’s really special.”

Rossi also discusses his rough start to the 2020 season, why he still needs a championship and his fearlessness of passing on restarts during the interview with Snider, which you can watch during NBC’s broadcast of the 104th Indy 500 today starting at 1 p.m. ET.

Alexander Rossi Indy 500
Alexander Rossi is seeking his first victory this season in today’s 104th Indy 500 (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”