Alexander Rossi’s greatness is on display when he straps himself into a real race car; not a sim rig.
Though the IndyCar iRacing Challenge has provided competition-starved fans a nice diversion during the COVID-19 shutdown, nothing replaces the real thing.
The sights, the sounds, the color, even the smell of racing affects nearly every sense of a race fan at the track. TV also highlights the excitement and technology of racing.
But in order to truly appreciate how great an IndyCar driver truly is, one must watch drivers such as Rossi compete in the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda in an actual race.
Many of the younger drivers in IndyCar, have excelled on iRacing from the beginning. Veterans such as Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have used iRacing since 2008.
Rossi, however, was very frank in his assessment early in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge that he’s doing it to help support the series. Once real racing returns, he doesn’t plan on climbing into another sim rig in the future.
“I’m out, I think,” Rossi told NBCSports.com recently. “As long as racing returns to normal, I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”
If the real series had started on schedule for 2020, IndyCar would be coming off the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend.
Rossi’s greatness has been on display the past two seasons on the streets of Long Beach. The back-to-back winner of North America’s greatest street race has started on the pole and won the race both years.
In 2018, he led 71 of 85 laps in the contest. Last year, Rossi was even more dominant, leading 80 laps in the 85-lap contest.
The Andretti Autosport driver relinquished the lead only on pit stops; no driver passed Rossi on the track. He defeated Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden by 20.236 seconds.
Who knows what Rossi would have done if this year’s Accura Grand Prix of Long Beach had not been canceled because of COVID-19?
For now, Rossi’s greatness will have to wait until at least June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he made an incredible save in last year’s race).
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) June 9, 2019
Like a good soldier, Rossi will continue the final two races of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, but his primary focus is a return to real racing.
“The motivation is there until I can win every single race, which will never happen,” Rossi said. “I’ll never be short on motivation. That is what gets me out of bed each day, knowing there are people trying harder, pushing harder, training harder to beat me. The competitive nature of myself and the personality that I am, I want to beat them worse than they beat me.
“That is what drives me regardless of whether it was a good year, bad year, indifferent year. You are only as good as your last race.
“Every race weekend, every time you are in a race car is a new opportunity and time you have to prove yourself. As long as that mentality doesn’t change for me, the motivation will always be there.”
Rossi has owned the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach the past two seasons. But the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 also delivered a major beatdown at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in 2019.
He started second in the race after rookie Colton Herta won the pole. At the start, he sized up Herta heading into Turn 1, and passed him for the lead. He would 54 of 55 laps and defeat Team Penske’s Will Power by a whopping 28.439-seconds.
Ironically, he doesn’t consider that his best race of last season.
“I would say Indy was probably my best race,” Rossi said of his second-place finish to Simon Pagenaud. “I wish I knew what we did at Road America, Long Beach last year and Pocono in 2018. It’s weird. There are days when it all clicks. We’re trying to quantify that and understand why those days go the way they do. We don’t seem to win races by seconds, it’s by big margins.”
Rossi won the Indy 500 the first time he ever strapped into his car as a rookie in 2016. He has been a contender ever since.
“Indy is such a weird place,” Rossi said. “In 2016, I did not have the best car at all, and we won. We had the best car and couldn’t get it done in 2018 and 2019. It’s a wild place. The saying the track chooses the winner is very true. That is what makes the event so special. It’s why it means so much when we pull it off.
“You can have the best car; the best strategy and the best things fall your way and you still don’t win. But, that’s the Indy 500 and IndyCars.”
Rossi has arguably been the most talented driver on the track in terms of raw racing ability. But he has yet to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship.
The value of winning a championship has increased because he has come close, but not succeeded.
“If anything, it makes it more desirable,” Rossi admitted. “I talked to Josef Newgarden, and he appreciates the second championship much more than the first. I get that because I’ll appreciate my second Indianapolis 500 much more than the first.
“It’s one of those things once you get it done once, you have the subconscious road map how to accomplish it. Right now, that map is buffering. It’s not all the way there. In 2018, it was 85 percent. In 2019, it was 90 percent.
“Hopefully, we can take a 10 percent chunk this year and get it done. There are so many factors, and so many things that have to work out right for you. The pace has to be there. The team has to be on it. There can’t be mistakes. All of the stars have to align a little bit.
“If anything, the whole team is hungrier. There is zero complacency. The whole team is motivated to try to figure out how to get it done, but you don’t want to get caught in the trap of trying too hard. That’s a slippery slope.
“We are all happy with last year in terms of execution and performance. We will go into this season with the similar mindset to carry on 2019.”
Meantime, Rossi has to deal with the uncertainties that have made 2020 an historic time, for all the wrong reasons.
“It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now,” Rossi said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. Everyone’s world kind of got shook up without a lot of notice. We all were excited to get the season under way in St. Pete. Obviously, that wasn’t meant to be. We weren’t able to really do anything that weekend.
“I think a lot of the fans have been waiting since September to see us race again, to see cars on track. We are disappointed.
“So now we’re very lucky to have this partnership with iRacing and the opportunity to have a platform to give the fans something to look forward to, to give the partners a way to get their brands and their colors back out in front of people.
“It’s pretty cool. The technology is good enough to allow us to do that now. It’s important that we as IndyCar drivers kind of embrace at least our new temporary role of sim drivers.”