Jumping On The Rossi Bandwagon

Whenever I go through a performance review at work, there is one overwhelming trait that comes through on every one regardless of who is giving them. For decades, different bosses on different jobs have always told me that I have the ability to read people very well. I have to agree with them. Very rarely has that trait of mine failed me. OK, it failed me when I met my first wife – but other than that one crucial bobble, I’m usually dead-on accurate when I either meet people or even get a first impression on television. Well, now I can count two bobbles, because it’s now apparent that I completely misread Alexander Rossi when he first came to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

I had heard the name of Alexander Rossi prior to his signing with Andretti Herta Autosport a little more than two years ago, but I really knew nothing about him. When I heard his initial interview on Trackside the same day his signing was announced, I took an immediate dislike to Rossi. He seemed distant and aloof, but worst of all he came off as very condescending towards IndyCar. He made it clear that the only reason he was here was because his ride in Formula One had been sold out from under him at the last minute. He also left no doubt that as soon as the first opportunity came open in Formula One – he was gone.

I had immediately found someone I could root against. He was technically an American, but had lived all of his adult life in Europe and Asia chasing his F1 dreams. He even sounded European.

Future interviews on television early that season did nothing to change my mind. Rossi came across as flippant and didn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for IndyCar or the tracks they ran on. You can imagine the pleasure I took, when his struggles increased at each of the first few races of that 2016 rookie season. His last two races heading into the Month of May were a twentieth-place finish at Long Beach, and a fifteenth-place finish at Barber.

When he finished tenth at the GP of Indy, I paid no mind. But in the last few laps of the 2016 Indianapolis 500 when it became apparent he might win it, I was not happy. I didn’t boo the winner when it was over, because I think that’s just wrong. But I was not happy that he won it. I felt like he had no appreciation for what he had just walked into, while other drivers in that field would have given their right arm to win that race.

As his struggles continued after Indianapolis, I was more and more convinced that his Indianapolis win was just a fluke. But when he finished sixth at Iowa, that got my attention. I was impressed that this kid from a European background was performing well on ovals. But he struggled at the next three races, including a twentieth at Pocono. He qualified seventh, but contact with Charlie Kimball in the pits sent Rossi flying over the car of Helio Castroneves. His reaction to that was impressive. He didn’t seem rattled, nor did he assign blame. He was stoic and matter-of-fact about the situation.

After that impressive qualifying effort, he closed out the season with an eleventh at the resumption of Texas, an eighth at Watkins Glen and a fifth at Sonoma. By this time, it was occurring to me that maybe Rossi wasn’t near as distant or condescending as I had originally thought. I had decided was just reserved and maybe a little shy.

In interviews prior to the start of the 2017 season, Rossi seemed different. Not only did he seem to be a little more at ease, he seemed like he had more appreciation for the series in general. Based on what he heard from Lewis Hamilton last May, I think the prevailing thought within the Formula One paddock is that IndyCar is a joke. More than a quarter-century ago, Niki Lauda referred to Indy car racing as “lazy man’s racing”. Apparently the F1 mindset hasn’t changed much since then.

It’s easy to understand that a young man barely in his twenties would buy into that theory, when that’s all he hears overseas. I’m sure Alexander Rossi thought he was sliding way down the career ladder to go from Formula One to IndyCar in a matter of months.

It was probably also a culture shock to go from F1; to where drivers are so sheltered from fans, that the only times you see fans is when you are driving on the track and you might see them in the stands. What a shock it must’ve been to go from that to an environment where drivers are actually encouraged and expected to interact with fans and (gasp) other drivers. But after a year, Rossi seemed to be coming to grips with the idea of mingling with fans if not enjoying it.

The other big difference in Rossi last season compared to 2016 was the way he was driving. He was now seeing tracks for the second time and was showing how well he learned them the first time. Aside from his “500” win, he had no finish better than fifth in 2016 – and that was the last race of the season. Rossi finished seventh in points last season, compared to eleventh the previous year. He also had another solid run in the Indianapolis 500, where he finished seventh as the defending champion. He had a second-place finish at Toronto and a third at Pocono, before winning impressively at Watkins Glen.

By the end of last season, I was beginning to warm to Alexander Rossi. Not only was he starting to show a little more of his personality out of the car, he was showing his true talents in the car. Plus, I was impressed with how he carried himself as the defending Indianapolis 500 champion through last May. Somewhere along the way, I think the enormity of what he had done by winning it the year before suddenly hit him. He seemed to appreciate it more than when he first won it.

I am embarrassed to admit what converted me from warming up to Rossi to becoming a full-fledged fan, but it was his appearance this past winter on The Amazing Race. He and Conor Daly teamed up and went to the final episode before winding up in fourth place. But in those episodes was when I saw a whole other side of Alexander Rossi that I never had a clue even existed.

Not only was he funny, but he and Daly both got along well with the competing team members in an environment that encourages back-stabbing. He and Daly played the game with integrity and the two of them really came off as extremely likable. They were so well-liked that two of the three competing teams that made it to the final episode, showed up in Phoenix back in February to support Rossi, while the unemployed Daly showed them around.

The show really turned around my impression of Alexander Rossi and I found myself pulling for him to do well at St. Petersburg – a far cry from when I used to pull against him just two years ago.

Going into the season, Rossi had made his way onto the list of drivers I pull for. Normally I’m fairly objective and I like to think I was being objective when I saw his move on Robert Wickens on the last restart as strictly a racing incident. Before the race at Phoenix started Saturday night, I told Susan that it would not surprise me if Rossi won that race. He started strong, moving from fourth to third, but then he had his mishap on his first pit stop that resulted in a drive-through penalty that ended up with Rossi as the last car running and a lap down. At that point I figured Rossi would simply turn Saturday night into a long test session.

Instead, Rossi turned it into one of the best races I’ve seen anyone drive in a while. He passed a total of fifty-three cars and carved his way up through the field. The fifty-three cars Rossi passed accounted for almost twenty percent of all the passes that took place that night – by one driver. This wasn’t dumb luck where he got off pit sequence and caught some lucky yellows. He passed these cars in anger on the track.

The way his car was working in the latter stages of the race, I can only imagine what he would have done had he not suffered the penalty (which was rightly deserved, by the way).

Alexander Rossi trails Josef Newgarden by five points in the early championship battle. I’ve been a Newgarden fan since before he joined the series and always will be. But if the championship battle came down to Newgarden and Rossi at the end of the season, I would have a tough choice deciding who to pull for. At this point, it would probably still be Newgarden; but I’m quickly becoming a big Rossi fan as well. I think it’s safe to say that I have now jumped on the Alexander Rossi bandwagon.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Jumping On The Rossi Bandwagon”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’ve been a fan of Rossi since his GP2 days. I think he got a bad rap when he came over here because he was so used to the sheltered life and didn’t know how to handle all the exposure to fans and media that IndyCar drivers get. He was very quiet and shy which made him come off as aloof and he was also a bit ignorant of the series which didn’t help any. I also believe a lot of IndyCar fans automatically disliked him because he came from F1.

    But he’s a good driver and a likeable guy so I’m happy to see more people warming up to him. Really happy to see him get off to a strong start this season too, hope he keeps it up.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    I was not a fan.But like many he has shown me he can wheel a race car. I would not pick him over Newgarden, who I think is the best to come along in a long time. I think Rossi may have a advantage because the Honda engine seems stronger. That disappointed mean as I though chevy would not set idle.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Rossi is one of the few people I’ve ever seen to be both low key and a fast talker. Frankly, I find this combination of traits very humorous and I think he has always been a fun interview because of that.

    Oh yeah, he’s also got that racing car thing down pretty well too.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    Apparently he is a good motor car racer. A hot shoe. I don’t dwell on the other stuff.

  5. My thoughts are pretty similar to yours. I was at the Phoenix race and was amazed by his driving & passing. When he went around Pagenaud on the outside of turn 3 (not shown on TV), I turned to my wife and said I was now an official Rossi fan.

  6. Mark J Wick Says:

    If my memory serves me well, Dario Franchitti wasn’t very enthusiastic about his first few years driving in IndyCar, even after winning the 500, which he said several times was just another race. His perception and attitude changed quite a bit over the years. As someone who used to live in Scotland, I was instantly a Franchitti fan and was a bit disappointed that he didn’t “get it.”
    Those of us have followed IndyCar very closely since the 60s tend to forget that most people don’t even know the series exists beyond the 500. As you wrote George, Rossi was a product of his environment and those around him. He was, and is, obviously a great race car driver.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Excellent points and one I’m making a habit of remembering also – as fans, we’re products of our environment as well – and appreciating Indycar doesn’t automatically require we negate any/all other forms of racing, especially ones I don’t know much about. I have to be cognizant of the fact that when introducing new fans to Indycar, which I do every year, to not spend time with drab, pointless, and subjective comparisons. Simply open the door and let them decide.

      This year, I’m spending some time watching Formula e, more IMSA, more WEC, and generally working at being more open and unbiased toward drivers, teams, and types of racing. That is also not to say that I dislike all other forms of racing, just being more fair and open to learning more about them, seeing them for what they are, and passing on judgement. Except NASCAR. Fk NASCAR.

      Obviously Rossi and Wickens are two of the biggest early-season stories so far, with more to come in May. I can’t wait for bumping at Indy!

  7. Alexander’s driving speaks for him. I think he is going to do well this year.

  8. I didn’t investigate much about Rossi when he debuted in IndyCar in 2016. When he won the Indy 500, I thought he was a good, calm, shy guy,

    Entering IndyCar as an afterthought of Formula 1 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it’s strange in the United States, but not elsewhere.

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