MONTEREY, California – Toward the end of his career as a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Darrell Waltrip was asked to talk about the end of an era.
“It might be the end of an era, but at least I had an era,” Waltrip quipped.
Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca will be the end of the “Era of Alex” at Andretti Autosport in the NTT IndyCar Series.
After seven seasons, the driver will say goodbye to his crew and his teammates after the season finale and move over to his new team at Arrow McLaren SP in 2023.
INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECA: Details, schedules for watching the season finale on NBC
Rossi burst onto the scene as an IndyCar rookie in 2016, the only American driver from Formula One, though his F1 career consisted of just five races for Manor Marussia in 2015.
With his Euro-California accent and his very precise method of speaking, the kid from Auburn, California, stood out in the IndyCar paddock at that time. He drove the No. 98 Dallara-Honda for Bryan Herta Autosport, but it was a sister team to Andretti Autosport known as Andretti Herta Autosport.
When he arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2016 for the 100thIndianapolis 500, Rossi’s best IndyCar finish was 14th at Phoenix. He would score a 10th-place finish on the IMS road course two weeks before the milestone 100th running of the world’s biggest race.
Rossi couldn’t have picked a better place for his career breakout.
With an announced sellout of 350,000, Rossi stunned the crowd and the millions watching on television as he won the 100th Indianapolis 500. His team devised a brilliant fuel strategy that helped him overcome two pit road issues midway through the race.
By deciding to top-off the fuel tank one lap before going to back to racing, Rossi would be able to stretch his final tank of fuel by going the final 36 laps to the checkered flag.
On his radio, team owner and race strategist Herta coached Rossi to the checkered flag, imploring him to “Clutch and Coast! Clutch and Coast!”
On the final lap, Rossi’s Honda began to run out of fuel. But the strategy worked perfectly as he coasted across the finish line to score his first career IndyCar win in one of the most anticipated and memorable Indianapolis 500s in history.
“Lightning in a bottle,” Herta told NBC Sports Friday at Laguna Seca. “You can’t undersell what Alex pulled off that day with the fuel number that he did and still be able to go fast and set the fastest fuel number in that race. It was really an incredible performance.
“He is a guy that every single year at Indy, he will be in the mix, but at that time, we didn’t know he was that guy. That is why it was such a surprising result.
“Now, as we look back, it all makes sense.”
Suddenly, IndyCar had a new star, and he was an American driver with a Formula One pedigree.
Rossi was stunned. He got to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, climbed out of the car and could be heard saying, “Now, what do I do?”
The quirkiness of this magical moment has become an iconic part of Indy 500 history.
“I feel very fortunate that it did happen,” Rossi told NBC Sports Friday from inside the Andretti Autosport team transporter. “It was a very special day for a lot of reasons, not only for me but winning the Indianapolis 500. It will go down as one of the largest Indy 500s in history. To be a part of that as my first Indianapolis 500 was incredibly special. To have the result that we did at the end obviously set up my career trajectory to where it is now.
“My appreciation and love for that event has only grown every single year that we go back, and I have the opportunity to qualify for that race again. It certainly changed my life from that standpoint. I’m already thinking about next year’s Indianapolis 500 and hopefully we can get back to that point of what we were able to accomplish in 2016.”
The rest of 2016 was a typical rookie season for Rossi. He had four more top-10 finishes and ended the season with a fifth place at Sonoma. He was 11th in the final championship standings that season.
“The rest of the year was what we expected,” Rossi said. “I was learning a lot of new tracks for the first time and a new car and a new championship, so it was a decent year from that standpoint.”
In 2017, Rossi showed impressive improvement. He led 23 laps in the Indianapolis 500 and finished seventh. His Honda had fueling issues that caused him to drop back in the field, but he was able to rally back to a seventh-place finish.
He drove to victory at the famed Watkins Glen International later that year and finished the season seventh in points.
The next two years, watching Rossi race was magical.
He drove fearlessly and aggressively, especially at the Indianapolis 500 where he would run dangerously high lines, nearly brushing the wall, to pass cars in front of him.
At Long Beach in 2018, he started on the pole and left the rest of the field in another zip code, winning by leading on the famed street race for 73 of the 85 laps.
Although he experienced issues in Indianapolis 500 qualifications that forced him to start 32nd in the 33-car field, he fought his way all the way to a fourth-place finish, thrilling the crowd.
Rossi was a major contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2018 with three wins, taking the fight all the way to the final race of the season before losing the championship to Scott Dixon by 57 points.
In 2019, Rossi was favored to win the championship and the Indianapolis 500.
His fight to the finish against Simon Pagenaud was a thriller with Pagenaud making the winning pass on the final lap. Rossi tried to size Pagenaud up to regain the lead on the backstretch, but the Team Penske driver was successful in breaking the draft.
Rossi won two races that year and finished third in the championship.
Midway through that season, he signed a new contract with Andretti Autosport, and he was prepared to become the dominant driver of his era.
“At the time, that was the right move for us to make, 100 percent,” Rossi said of his contract in 2019. “To be loyal to a team and a manufacturer that had given me my start in the series, and we had accomplished a lot together. No one has a crystal ball at that point.
“In 2019, when we signed the deal, we were in the thick of the championship fight. We knew there were a lot of areas for us to improve to carry us into the future. It was 100 percent the right decision.”
Then came 2020 and the magic was gone.
It was the beginning of a 49-race winless streak for Rossi and the No. 27 crew at Andretti Autosport. He finished ninth in the standings in 2020, 10th in 2021 and enters Sunday’s season finale eighth.
“These last three years have not met anyone’s expectations, me, the team, Honda,” Rossi said. “I think that is why we all got to the point where it was time for a change. There is nothing contentious, nothing negative in terms of my experience with the team, with Michael, any of the organization.
“We’re all disappointed with what the past three years has brought. We wanted to see it go differently, we wanted to see it go better and we want to continue on being as good of friends that we are and the relationships intact because it wasn’t any one person’s fault.
“It was a lot of circumstances that prevented us from having the success we thought we could have.”
Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong during Rossi’s slump. The harder the team tried to turn it around, the worse it seemed to get.
“It got comical to a certain extent,” Rossi said. “There were things happening and failures that we were having. It was one thing after another. We all still believed in the performance.
“If you look at qualifying, we were in the top three to five qualifying cars the past three years, we just weren’t getting the results. We just kept the belief in doing what we knew we could do week-in and week-out. That was rewarded two months ago at the Indy GP. That was a big breakthrough for us that we could end this journey on a decently high note.
“We still have this opportunity at Laguna. The cars are fast, but it’s nice to not go into the separation without having another win to our name. That was a big thing for all of us.”
During Rossi’s rookie season, Bryan Herta called his race strategy. The next year, he moved from the No. 98 Honda to the No. 27 Honda at Andretti Autosport and team CEO Rob Edwards took over the strategy for the driver with Jeremy Milless as the engineer.
At the time, it was a winning combination before things changed in 2020.
“From the outside, it all looks black and white,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “There were a lot of factors in play there – Alex, the team, COVID, the whole period. Even though it’s only two years ago, it all seems very surreal to be going through all of that.
“There was a combination of things in play. Racing is a momentum game. When you are on a strong run of results, they tend to continue. But when things don’t head the right way, it perpetuates as well. It wasn’t any one thing, but the contrast between 2019 and 2020 was rather substantial.”
It appeared the team was ready to move on from Rossi early in the 2022 season. Edwards left to work with rookie driver Devlin DeFrancesco and longtime race strategist and racing executive Brian Barnhart took over the role with Rossi.
“There were two things behind that,” Edwards explained. “With Devlin coming on board, we thought it would be a good fit for me to go down there and be the leader. The other was to have someone fresh to work with Alex and Jeremy and hit the reset button would be positive for the 27 group as well.
“Brian had been around our group since 2019 with the Harding program and with Colton’s car and then with James Hinchcliffe. It wasn’t like someone coming in the guys didn’t know. It was to try to hit the re-set button and switch things up.”
The move seemed to work. Rossi’s performance continued to get better, but victory seemed to elude him.
Finally, the drought ended with a victory on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in the July 30 Gallagher Grand Prix.
“To get a victory with Brian, he came in and was an immediate positive impact on the whole car and on me,” Rossi recalled. “It was nice to reward that kind of goodness he has brought to the table.
“The incentive to me was to get a win for the whole group.
“It was a long time coming for the whole 27 team. A lot of close calls. Wins that we had that were taken away from us. It finally came together that weekend on that day. It was a sense of relief that we can still do this.
“We can take that momentum going forward into everyone’s individual careers as we go our separate ways at the end of this year.”
When Rossi announced in early June in the days following the 106th Indianapolis 500 that he would be leaving Andretti Autosport for a fresh start at Arrow McLaren SP, he appeared genuinely relieved.
His personality began to improve, and he started to return to the Alex of old.
“I would like to think since Detroit onwards, we have seen the old Alex,” Edwards said. “The tension and frustration continued to build through 2021. I think the fact that Alex’s future plans were out in the open that first week in June mentally freed up some things on both sides.
“We know he has a huge amount of ability. Maybe mentally and psychologically, from June onward things started to fall back into place.”
It’s the end of the “Era of Alex” at least at Andretti Autosport, but it could be the “Dawn of a New Age” as he joins Arrow McLaren SP.
“There were missed opportunities and those are the ones you remember more than anything,” Rossi said. “I just turned 30, so I don’t worry about things. We’ve shown this year the performance is still there. Everything is fine from that standpoint.
“We’re starting a new journey, but it’s still within the IndyCar Series and we still have a lot of things to accomplish in this sport that I have an exponential amount that I can still offer.”
Tomorrow will be a bittersweet day…the last time for babygirl in these colors. We’ll roll from P3 and go for a win. #INDYCAR #FirestoneGP #NAPAKnowHow #DrivePink #PoweredbyHonda #AllAndretti pic.twitter.com/GTjfHUizZc
— Alexander Rossi (@AlexanderRossi) September 11, 2022
Rossi prefers to focus forward, rather than look in his rear-view mirror. But it is undeniable that during the seven years he was at Andretti Autosport, Rossi was a major star in IndyCar.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about it a whole lot,” Rossi said. “This is the end of the road here at Laguna Seca with Andretti. The big thing is you have to be realistic. There are good and bad things with every decision you make.
“There are going to be things that require an adjustment. There are going to be things that are a little bit better. There are going to be things that are a little bit worse, and you have to understand what those things are.
“Ultimately, I don’t like to look back, but this weekend is about looking back at the positivity and the good things that have happened at this organization and giving me the career that I have in IndyCar. We want to end that on a high. We’ve been fast in qualifying in the past but haven’t had a race result to really show for that. That’s our main focus for the race weekend.”
At the end of Sunday’s race, Rossi knows it will be time to say goodbye to the only IndyCar team he has known in his career. A bond that he has built with his crew never will be the same.
They may remain friends, but next season, they will be competing against each other, not racing together.
“It will be bittersweet,” Rossi admitted. “These guys I know so well. I know their families. I spend my off time with some of them. It will be strange coming to the track knowing the next time I come to the track it won’t be to be with those guys.
“But life changes. Things change. It’s been a positive situation. Michael Andretti is still a legitimate friend of mine. Marco is one of my closest friends. Marissa is great. That whole family is great to me, the Andretti family. I don’t see that changing.
“We’re going to be competitors next year, but in a lot of ways away from the race track, it will be status quo.”
He looks forward to reporting to duty with his new team at Arrow McLaren SP, a team that is on the rise in IndyCar and ready to win the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar championships in the future.
“That’s the plan,” Rossi said. “I wasn’t going to leave this team for something that I thought was a step backwards. It’s unbelievable what they have done in a short period of time since McLaren has taken controlling interest and elevated that team to a whole different level. They give us a serious run for their money everywhere we go.
“If you look at their results with Pato in the championship, at the Indy 500 in the past several years, what Zak Brown has done with the organizations and Taylor Kiel, their motivation is winning and purely winning, and they will stop at nothing to accomplish that, and that is very exciting.”
The end of this era should come with proper reflection and analysis. The best person to provide that is the man who helped capture “Lightning in a Bottle” with the “Clutch and Coast” Indy 500 victory in 2016.
That man is Rossi’s first team owner, Bryan Herta.
“No. 1, Alexander is a great driver,” Herta said. “He has a unique ability all the good guys do, and you start from that. On top of that, a great work ethic and understanding of the car, you have a really formidable competition, which is what Alex is.
“Part of why he has been so successful in the IndyCar Series is his relentlessness and he is able to operate at a high level at every track we race on.
“There are a lot of good guys in the series, but only a handful of guys that it doesn’t matter if it’s a short oval or superspeedway or street course or road course that you are going to have to deal with them. Alex has mastered all the disciplines.
“Personally, I hate to see Alex go. He’s an asset to the team. He’s an asset in the engineering trailer and he helps move us forward, and he’s a friend, and I like him. I’ll miss that.
“We’ll still see him in the paddock. I hope he still invites me to dinner. But we won’t spend as much time together or as much together.”
To Rossi and Herta, it’s a bond that may last for the rest of their lives.
“Alex and I were talking last night, when you work together as closely as we have, it forms a bond, and that bond lasts forever,” Herta said. “I still see guys that I haven’t worked with in IndyCar for 30 years when I was driving. You see them in the paddock and you always say hello and talk to them.
“I feel lucky to know Alex and play a role in his successes and I’ll continue to be a fan. I hope he has a lot of success in his future.”