2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi is notoriously great at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: the Californian has never finished lower than seventh. What goes on in the head of someone who’s pretty consistently successful at the biggest race in the world? In a recent interview with Jalopnik, Rossi opens up about the atmosphere in the impressive-looking Andretti Autosport and what he’s expecting from the 104th running of the world’s biggest race.
Elizabeth Blackstock: Last year when you started the 500, you started from ninth as well. What is it going to take for you to win this time around?
Alexander Rossi: I think the big difference this year to last year is Honda has come with a really strong package from the engine standpoint. We feel like we have a little bit of an advantage. I think we missed a small opportunity last Sunday, which I’m a little bit annoyed about, to start potentially from the first or second row. Regardless, making the Fast Nine was an accomplishment, and I think Andretti Autosport has a bunch of really fast race cars. It should be a very interesting race.
EB: Did you know at the start of practice that Andretti was going to be pretty fast in qualifying?
AR: Yeah, for sure. I know a lot of people look at the time sheets through the week, but those are very muddied with a lot of different people. The tow, or draft effect, has a huge difference on overall lap times. So, even though were were always barely in the top 20 [overall], on the single-car lap, when you’re out there by yourself, we were always in the top three. I think we were always fairly confident in qualifying. It was just a little bit of missed execution on pole day.
EB: Can you talk through what happened on Sunday?
AR: I don’t know that we really know, to be honest. We were really confident with our car on Saturday and just missed being quickest by a couple tenths of a mile an hour. We felt that we had more still to come, and we didn’t change the car from Saturday to Sunday. But the wind did pick up quite a bit, and I guess that had more of an impact on our particular balance than others. Not only was the pace over the four laps not there, the ultimate pace wasn’t there, either. It’s still a little bit of a mystery to us. But it’s behind us now, and it kind of doesn’t matter at this point.
EB: Do you feel that the abbreviated practice schedule had any impact on that?
AR: Yeah, it’s been condensed, but ultimately it’s been a lot more practice than we’ve had all year. It’s been nice from that standpoint. But certainly, yeah, we’ve had to condense a lot more of our running than we have had to in years past, but I still think we have a really good package going into the weekend.
EB: What’s the atmosphere in the team like right now since it seems like you can be going into the 500 with a lot of confidence?
AR: It’s the same as years past. We’ve always had cars that were in the top nine, so I think we’ve always been in this position. Obviously, with Marco being on pole, it’s a huge boost for the whole Andretti Autosport organization, the Andretti family, for Marco himself—it’s been pretty exciting to watch that. We were all thrilled for him to be able to pull it off. But now we’ve moved on from that, and we’re focusing now on trying to get the team a win, regardless of who it is. Obviously, we’re all working as a team right now, but come race day on Sunday, it will be every man for himself.
EB: You’ve consistently performed very well at Indianapolis. Do you know what it is about the Speedway that clicks with you?
AR: I think the team has always been really strong here. There’s so much about being quick at the Speedway that’s about your car. I’ve been very fortunate to have a car that’s always toward the sharp end, in the top 11 or 12 every year. That gives you a fighting chance, at least. As a driver, all you’re asking for is just a chance, and then it’s up to you to get it done. I’ve been lucky these five years to have had a car that’s given me an opportunity. We came up short last year, but ultimately, I think this year is a little bit different from the engine manufacturer side. Honda has done a phenomenal job. I think we’re going in with a little bit more confidence than we’ve had in years past.
EB: Does that help in the context of your 2020 season? I know it’s been a difficult start—is it comforting to know you guys look pretty quick now?
AR: Kind of. This race is really independent of the season that’s going on around us the rest of the year, whether it’s good or bad. You’re just focused on this event and trying to win this, and you don’t ever really think about it as part of a championship. It’s its own thing.
We’re pleased that the car has been strong, but by no means—in ten days, when we’re in Gateway, we’re not assuming that it’s going to be the same. We’ve had a little bit of a deficit this year compared to some other teams. The rest of the tracks we go to, we’re still working hard on closing that gap.
EB: Do you think the doubleheaders are going to be a help in that you at least know the track from the day before?
AR: It helps you if you’re good! [laughs] It really depends. It’s so competitive now, I think. If we use Iowa as an example, there were some cars that were quite a bit better in the race than others, but on race number two, everyone hones in on their areas where they were lacking, and it becomes very difficult. Everyone’s there for the second go-around and knows what they need and what they need to do different to do better. If you’ve got an advantage, yeah, it’s great. If you’re trying to close a gap, it gets very challenging for the second race of the weekend.
EB: Can you walk me through these next few days? What’s your schedule like heading into the 500? Do you have anything you feel like you need to do, any routines?
AR: It’s been a little weird. There haven’t been the commitments and the busy schedule that we’ve usually had in years past in terms of sponsor appearances and media tours and all that goes along with the tradition and pageantry of the 500. It’s been pretty much just a normal week. It’s a little bit weird from that standpoint, but ultimately, as you get to the track and you’re having your pre-event meetings and you’re going through everything, it feels pretty normal. But for sure on race day, it’s going to be missing a lot of the drama and the excitement that fuels a lot of the guys. Which is sad, but at the end of the day, we’ve gotta be very appreciative that we’re having the race in the first place.
EB: I know that you have some fans who make a point of seeing you race a few times a year. What has it been like without the opportunity to interact with some of your closest fans?
AR: It sucks. Fans are a huge part of the sport, and we’ve had a few events where they’ve been allowed to be there in a limited capacity. But not once has the paddock been open as it usually is in IndyCar, and that’s one of the cool things about IndyCar. In normal situations, the fans can get right up close to the cars and meet their favorite drivers and take pictures and forge some sort of relationship with them, whereas now, they’re on the other side of the track in the grandstands. You still feel the excitement from them and the energy from them when they’re there. When they’re not there, something’s missing. It gives everyone a whole new appreciation for the fans and what they bring to our sport. Hopefully we never have to do this again, in terms of running an Indy 500 behind closed doors.
EB: Going into the race, which driver scares you the most? Who do you think is going to be your biggest competition?
AR: I think all of our team cars are really good, but I think the car that really looks the best in traffic running and is obviously fast is Takuma [Sato] who’s starting third. And obviously, you always have to be wary of Scott [Dixon]. The past couple years, [Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing] haven’t been that fast, so they’ve always stared in the middle, so you haven’t really thought about him too much. But now he’s starting on the front row. He’s definitely going to be a factor all day, and the year he’s had—it’s going to be tough to beat him. But I would say, definitely, Scott and Takuma are the two strongest cars out there.
EB: In Formula One, they’ve taken the series back to tracks that they haven’t raced on in a while. If you could pick any track for IndyCar to go compete on, which track would that be?
AR: That’s a good question. I mean, I would love IndyCar to go back to Montreal. I think that’s an amazing city, and it’s a great track in terms of the race it would put on, so that would be very cool. I also think the street races that we have are pretty awesome from an energy standpoint, so if we could add a street race… I know there’s been times with Nashville and a couple other cites that wanted to host a street race at one point. That would be exciting. Really, in terms of the races that we’ve had in the past, Montreal would be a really cool addition.
EB: So for my last question… Do you have any leads on who nabbed your golf car tires?
AR: I know who it is, and the payback is going to be pretty interesting for them. I’m in the process of planning what that is and what it’s going to look like, and I’m sure you’ll find out about it on the internet either tomorrow or Friday.