INDIANAPOLIS – The most impressive American in the most American of auto races sipped through a distractingly long and coiled straw, tolerating the incessant questions about a sublime Sunday drive.
How confident was he about the spectacular array of passes he’d completed over 500 miles at the world’s most famous – and often treacherous – speedway?
“Confident enough,” Alexander Rossi said with a hint of European indifference that betrays the fact he was raised in Nevada City, California. “I mean, you never know. But the inside was blocked, so sometimes there’s not any other option.
“And I’m not going to lift, so … ”
Let’s finish that sentence in a way that Rossi never would.
“… I’m going to do things that will seem superhuman and extraordinary, particularly during a race where the most talented of my peers were spinning as if they never manhandled a car at 240 mph. I didn’t win, but today I proved it: I am The Greatest this speedway has ever seen!”
No, the Andretti Autosport driver is not Ali – and ultimately, that shouldn’t matter, anyway.
What the 26-year-old did in starting 32nd and finishing fourth at the Brickyard should stand on its own merits for being in the conversation as this country’s greatest IndyCar talent.
Will Power was the winner of the 102nd Indianapolis 500, but Rossi was the show at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In two spellbinding restarts on Lap 145 and Lap 153, his No. 27 Dallara-Honda gained roughly eight spots in about three laps by riding the outside wall, inches away from the concrete at somewhere well above 200 mph.
Rossi nearly shrugged when asked about the guts it took.
“Just opportunity, man,” he said. ‘It’s not anything to do with anything else. You try to make the most of the opportunities that are presented to you.”
These are the answers you get with Rossi and please don’t misread them as aloof.
He drives with the verve of Dale Earnhardt.
He talks with the nonchalance of Michael Schumacher.
Or any other F1 champion who views the media as a necessary nuisance that must be tolerated in between terrific exhibitions of exquisite driving. Just listen:
Is your philosophy that if a hole is wide enough for your car, you go for it?
“When you’re starting 32nd, yeah. If I was starting from third, no. It’s just a different mindset. You’ve got to expose the car. You’ve got to do some things you’re uncomfortable with and hope they work out.”
So the outside lane is your preferred lane?
“No. There’s a hole, right? You go where there’s no other cars.”
But those passes were insane.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, we did the same thing at Phoenix, right? We know how to pass on ovals.”
Indeed, Rossi showed his brilliance with a third in the April 7 race at ISM Raceway, and he won the 2016 Indy 500 as a rookie in what was almost his oval debut.
His ability to acclimate clearly is exceptional, and what was striking Sunday was that he deftly controlled his car while many talented Indy veterans – Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais, to name a few – could not.
While there was a lot of tip-toeing by others at the outset around the 2.5-mile track, Rossi aggressively pursued every patch of open pavement. He showed that the outside line could work. As the action intensified in the final 50 laps, it coincided with Rossi becoming a fixture in the top five.
“Entirely more comfortable,” he said when asked to compare his oval prowess with entering Indy two years ago from a lifetime on street and road courses. “It’s night and day different. Your ass is clenched around here quite a bit of the time. Especially with this new car. It moves around a lot. No doubt, I know what to expect and how to handle things.
“I know mentally how the race works, so I guess from that standpoint, there’s not the anxiety or nervousness going into it, just cause I’ve been here two times before — now three times. Hopefully, one day we can get back into the Winner’s Circle.”
At his current rate, he could do much more than that. He is second in the points standings behind Power and just ahead of Josef Newgarden, the defending series champion and fellow Yank who has all of the charisma and charm that IndyCar wants in an American superstar.
Rossi isn’t talked about often in that way yet. But he should be.
He raced in Europe for the better part of a decade, culminating in 2015 with a brief five-race Formula One career doomed from the start because it was with a backmarker team. Rossi quickly has made up for lost time since returning to the States.
And he has shown an aptitude for being accessible and connecting with fans. He started a podcast (“Off Track”) with IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. Last year, he and American driver Conor Daly finished fourth in “The Amazing Race” (Rossi played the straight man to Daly’s colorful personality).
As Rossi was surrounded by the largest throng of reporters in Indy’s pit lane after his amazing drive Sunday, some of his “Amazing Race” competitors were snapping photos nearby as he patiently and sometimes humorously answered every question.
Was the cockpit sweltering on a 91-degree day that was the second hottest on record in the Indy 500?
“It wasn’t too bad,” Rossi said. “You have the best A/C at 200 mph. I was never worried about that. It was more uncomfortable doing driver introductions and the group photo than it was actually driving.”
It’s fine if he also still isn’t comfortable with giving the news media the long and insightful answers that we so desperately crave (often without justification).
Many drivers start that way … and many learn to become outspoken while maintaining their cool demeanor (Scott Dixon and Kyle Larson come to mind.)
Rossi saved one of his longest answers for a question about whether it was any consolation that he made many new fans Sunday even without a victory.
“I want to win,” he said. “That’s what I work for every day and dream of every day, and now I have 365 days to start thinking about the 103rd running. I’m very happy for Will. I know he’s been wanting this a long time, and that’s very cool. He’s well deserved.
“But yeah. I don’t think that’s going to be consolation. I’m here to win.”
If he keeps delivering more days like Sunday, we’ll be here to watch.