Why Rossi Should Not Go to Team Penske

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Perhaps I should have entitled this “Why I Don’t Want Rossi to Go to Team Penske”. Of course, since Simon Pagenaud won the Indianapolis 500, it’s far less likely that Alexander Rossi will get that call from The Captain. But make no doubt, if Roger Penske makes the call – you go. Al Unser, Jr. and Gil de Ferran did it, so did André Ribeiro, Greg Moore, Sam Hornish and Josef Newgarden. They were all with decent teams, but when the offer was extended – they all jumped to the best team in the business.

The only driver I can think of that allegedly turned down Roger Penske is Ryan Hunter-Reay. As Hunter-Reay was about to wrap up the 2012 IndyCar title, he was supposedly offered a contract to drive for Team Penske beginning in 2013. Hunter-Reay turned it down and went on to win the 2014 Indianapolis 500 in a late race duel with Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves.

Granted, Andretti Autosport is more than a decent team. And until Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud won this year’s Indianapolis 500, Michael Andretti’s team had won more Indianapolis 500s since 2014 – now Team Penske and Andretti Autosport have each won three of the last six. It’s hard to believe that Chip Ganassi Racing has not won the Indianapolis 500 since Dario Franchitti did so in 2012. They just win series championships lately.

This little history lesson shows that those drivers I mentioned earlier, all left teams that were not on the same footing with Team Penske. Sure Galles Racing, Walker Racing, Tasman Racing, Forsythe Racing, Panther Racing and Ed carpenter Racing all won races. Some even won championships and the Indianapolis 500 – but they were never in the same class as Team Penske, even in their best seasons.

Leaving Andretti Autosport for Penske is a little different. We’ll never know if Ryan Hunter-Reay regrets not going to Penske. Since Hunter-Reay won his only championship in 2012, Andretti has not won a championship since. Team Penske has won it three times; 2014 with Will Power, 2016 with Pagenaud and 2017 with Newgarden. Would one of those belong to Hunter-Reay if he had switched? Maybe. Maybe not.

But Hunter-Reay stayed and seems happy, because he has had a very nice career. Hunter-Reay was thirty-one when faced with that decision. He is now thirty-eight and appears to be able to go out on his own terms, whenever he decides it’s time. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Alexander Rossi is only twenty-seven. He already has one Indianapolis 500 victory on his resume and seems destined to add more. His four-race record in the Indianapolis 500 is first, seventh, fourth and second. Many great drivers would take those four finishes for an entire career, and Rossi has already done it at a young age.

I will preface my comments by saying I really like Alexander Rossi. I didn’t at first. I thought he had no respect for IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500 when he came over from Europe only after his Formula One seat was no longer available to him. I found him to be aloof, arrogant and unlikeable.

When he won the Indianapolis 500, I wasn’t happy. I thought he had no appreciation for what he had done. At the time, I think I was correct. But as time went on, I think Rossi has figured out that this series is pretty good and he seems to feel right at home. And as far as the Indianapolis 500 goes, you can tell by the emotion displayed when he lost to Simon Pagenaud a week and a half ago just what that race now means to him. At the Victory Banquet, he told how he has fallen in love with the track and the race and there is nothing he wants to do more than win another one. Believe me, he now gets it.

But Alexander Rossi has ruffled a few feathers along the way. While I have flipped on my original opinion of him and grown to be a huge Rossi fan, others have yet to warm up to him. In fact, some downright despise Rossi. He had already raised some eyebrows with his driving style, when he tangled with Robert Wickens in the late stages of the opening race at St. Petersburg in 2018, while going for the lead. Rossi salvaged third, while Wickens ended up in the wall.

Fans reactions were mixed. Some (myself included) thought it to be a racing incident. Others felt that it was the dirtiest of moves and Rossi should’ve been penalized. Rossi took it in stride as he was convicted in the court of public opinion. Since then, whenever I’ve been at races when he is introduced to the crowd, there is more than a smattering of boos coming from the crowd. Does it seem to bother him? Not one bit.

For years, the NTT IndyCar Series has needed a villain. Some drivers over the years tried to falsely embrace that role, but they could never pull it off. As I type, I’m being stricken by a senior moment and cannot think of an example – but believe me, there have been a couple of them over the last decade.

Rivalries are the driving force in sports. Cowboys and Redskins; Duke and North Carolina; Ohio State and Michigan; Cubs and Cardinals; Senna and Probst; Earnhardt and Gordon; Foyt and Andretti – they are all historic and longtime rivals that drove the ratings for their respective sports for years. Nowadays, dependency on corporate sponsors has sanitized motorsports. Fear of embarrassing a sponsor and losing their paycheck has silenced drivers to the point that they are practically reading from a script and always making sure they play nice.

Alexander Rossi has the demeanor that he really couldn’t care less what his public perception is. He is quiet and reserved, but doesn’t mind speaking his mind when provoked. But when he straps on the helmet and climbs into the cockpit, he apparently becomes a different person. He has a driving style that is calculated but fearless. You know who else had that combination of on-track and off-track demeanor? Bill Vukovich.

Bill Vukovich was known to be somewhat surly, but that was misinterpreted shyness. Vuky’s closest friends recounted that he had a great sense of humor and was a cut-up around those that he knew and felt comfortable with. He was actually known as a prankster around his inner-circle. But whenever anyone entered his garage that he didn’t know – he would clam up and become extremely aloof and distant. But on-track, he was as focused and determined as anyone out there. Focus and talent is a formidable combination that only the great ones possess. Rossi has that.

Some will claim that it’s heresy to compare Alexander Rossi to Bill Vukovich, but I’m willing to bet that when Rossi’s career is over the two will compare quite favorably. But Rossi already shares one trait with the great Vukovich. When drivers see him in their mirrors, they know they are about to have a fight on their hands. Vukovich was an intimidating presence on the track. Rossi is that way too.

Rossi can use his serious demeanor as a weapon. His blunt and honest approach may rub some the wrong way – including sponsors and suppliers – but they also know that they are going to get a lot of air time with Rossi behind the wheel of a car with their logo on the sidepods or cowling. When he was asked what the difference was in finishing second behind Simon Pagenaud in the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500; Rossi bluntly answered “Horsepower”. With Pagenaud driving a Chevy and Rossi being powered by Honda, I’m sure the Honda execs were none too thrilled with that response – but it was true and honest.

Another trait that Rossi shares with Bill Vukovich, he already has a legion of fans, but he also has people who can’t stand him and want him to fail. Oddly enough, that’s good for business. When everyone plays nice, sponsors smile but fans get bored. Scott Dixon plays nice (most of the time) and gets accused of being boring by many fans. I’m not one of them, but many that have commented on this site have complained about how boring Scott Dixon is. Personally, I like Dixon’s demeanor but I also like Rossi’s. Why? Because they are both genuine.

Alexander Rossi is already a part-time Team Penske driver in the WeatherTech Sports Car Series. On those weekends, you will see a clean-shaven and sanitized version of Alexander Rossi because that’s what Team Penske wants. But that’s not who he is. He is one that usually carries a few days growth on his face and doesn’t bother to filter his comments.

He doesn’t go out of his way to make outlandish comments, like some drivers do to be intentionally controversial. He just says what’s on his mind, no matter the consequences. I find that refreshing, but I’m not sure Roger Penske does. The Captain likes for his drivers to be buttoned-up and keep negative or controversial comments to themselves. Penske is all about image and I’m not sure a genuine Alexander Rossi is the image that Penske desires.

So would going to Team Penske be a good career move for Rossi? Absolutely. But would that be the best thing for IndyCar? Absolutely not.

Andretti Autosport has been good to Alexander Rossi and he has been good for them. I think the two parties need to do whatever it takes to stay together.

The series needs for Rossi to be Rossi. And if he ruffles a few feathers along the way – even better. The series needs a great driver that is somewhat polarizing. Milka Duno was polarizing, but for the wrong reasons. She was a likeable person, but was not good in an Indy car. Some find Rossi unlikeable, but is fantastic in an Indy car. That’s how rivalries are formed. Some people will find satisfaction in cheering for anyone but Rossi. That helps ratings, attendance and overall interest in the series. And I don’t think Alexander Rossi has a problem whatsoever being in that role.

This past weekend, Paul Tracy suggested on the NBC telecast that Chip Ganassi Racing could be a likely destination for Rossi after his contract is up at the end of this season. I think the dynamics at Chip Ganassi Racing dictate that Scott Dixon is far and away the focus of the team, and the second car is just that…the second car. I don’t think Rossi needs to be second priority on any team.

So if you are a huge Alexander Rossi fan like I am, that’s great. But if you can’t stand Rossi and cheer for him to fail, that may even be better. He doesn’t care and the NTT IndyCar Series will be better for it.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Why Rossi Should Not Go to Team Penske”

  1. It’s been interesting for me to watch opinions on Rossi evolve. I’ve been watching him since GP2 and have been a fan for many years. Yes, he seemed aloof when he first came here but that’s how drivers are trained to be in the F1 circle, since he’d been driving over there for so long that’s what he knew and it took awhile to break free from that mold. No, he didn’t understand what his win at Indy meant but it wasn’t out of disrespect, it was out of ignorance because he didn’t know much about the race. I figured people would come around eventually and I’m happy to see he’s become one of the forefront drivers in the series.

    People always say they want drivers to be like the old-school guys, like Earnhardt and Foyt, who speak their minds, can drive the wheels off a car and give no quarter on the track. Rossi is that guy. He’s also a nice guy too, I’ve encountered him several times at the track and he’s always been friendly and has signed several things for me (including my Detroit ticket) which are proudly displayed in my collection. He’s probably my favorite driver in all of racing right now.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I think you are being a bit hard on Rossi by implying that he is a “villain” in the series. I have met him twice and he is a bit shy and reserved but very friendly. I also think he did know and appreciate his Indy 500 win at the time but being reserved it didn’t show. When he wins another 500 I think you will see his personality come out. Where I was sitting at the Indy 500 this year the cheers for Rossi taking the lead over Simon were much louder than the reverse. Having said all that, I truly hope he never goes to Penske because I can’t ever cheer for their drivers. ABO…anyone but Penske. Robin Miller seems to think Alexander will stay at Andretti, I hope so. Rossi is truly the most exciting driver at Indianapolis and in the series as a whole. Let’s all hope he stays where is is now.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Rossi at Andretti and/or Rossi in a Honda is certainly preferable to Rossi at Penske from a competitive balance standpoint. Rare, however, is the driver who achieves more before or after racing with Penske than they did with Penske. If he’s offering, Penske is a hard one to turn down.

    Rossi works well as a villain, provided he is beating someone else you are rooting for. There are no villains without heroes to challenge and take away race victories from. Villains without heroes are just jerks and villains without wins are just mild irritants. For some, of course, Rossi works quite well as the hero fighting the Penske juggernaut.

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder… NASCAR’s #1 villain Kyle Busch is my wife’s favorite driver, so for her he’s Dudley Do-Right to Kevin Harvick’s Snidely Whiplash even if that is not a widely held view.

  4. haters usually hate a winner.

  5. My feelings are odd on this subject. I tend to root for Penske over Ganassi and I like Rossi being able to compete and beat Dixon at times. I like him beating Penske guys at times also. That said, I am not really a fan of his either, it is a weird relationship I have with him. I think I like that someone else can consistently win now with Power, Newgarden and Dixon. I don’t want him on the Penske roster though, not at all.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    Rossi putting Wickens into a wall is all you need to know about Rossi. Please don’t insult the memory of Vukovich by comparing Rossi to Vuky. This has become the Rossi blog.

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