One important win changed his life, but Alexander Rossi’s goal is to make sure that race doesn’t define his career.
The fact that he won May’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil paved the way for Monday, when it was announced Rossi will return to Andretti-Herta Autosport and drive the No. 98 Honda in 2017.
But Rossi reiterated on a media teleconference that his mission is to make something lasting out of that memorable Indy 500 accomplishment. It’s not enough to be the 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year for both the Indianapolis 500 and Verizon IndyCar Series. Whereas the 25-year-old Californian once aspired to succeed in Formula One, he’s now set his mind to becoming an INDYCAR champion.
While expressing gratitude for the opportunity to continue, he didn’t hide his displeasure about most of his 2016 results in finishing 11th in the points.
“We didn’t win nearly enough this year,” Rossi said. “That’s obviously the goal for everyone, but it’s been a long time since, well, I’ve never finished outside the top 10 in a championship before. It’s something I’m not very happy about and it’s something we don’t want to have happen next year. There’s a huge amount of motivation for everyone to be way more competitive than we were and being in the front.”
Unlike this season when he signed with Andretti-Herta less than three weeks before the season opener, he’ll have an offseason to plan for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. His one-year contract also has a multiple-year option, which means he’s thinking beyond next season.
Andretti Autosport struggled as a team away from ovals. Rossi’s best run outside of the Indianapolis 500 came in the season finale, when he finished fifth in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Beyond that, his best results were sixth at Iowa Speedway and eighth at Watkins Glen International.
Make no mistake, Rossi considers that unacceptable.
“You wake up every day with the desire to win,” he said. “You don’t go to the racetrack to finish third.
“While the Indianapolis 500 is obviously the race that you want to win the most, I’d say, there’s still the fact that there’s an entire other championship where you set out in January or October or whenever, you know what you’re going to do for that year with the goal of winning the championship. In order to do that, you need to put together 16 strong races.
“The Indy 500 is a race in that championship on the road to hopefully becoming a champion, and it’s something where there’s a huge following and it’s a special race. But at the same time for me, you need to be just as successful there as the next week in Detroit.”
Two days before the Sonoma race, Rossi didn’t hesitate when asked if he could accentuate enough positives from this season.
“Not particularly,” he said. “Obviously the month of May was good. Iowa was OK. Watkins Glen was OK. Pocono should have been fantastic; I got taken out (by contact from another car) in pit lane.
“We struggled for pace in a lot of places. At Pocono, we were legitimately leading and something pretty unnecessary happened. I think the team has done an incredible job in trying to find solutions and has frankly worked their asses off.”
That’s not to say he didn’t see progress. Interest from other teams reminded Rossi of the value he has in the paddock. He said he was offered the opportunity in August to finish out the Formula One season in one of Manor Racing's cars, but he turned it down to focus on Indy car racing.
By his own admission, Rossi still needs to become better acclimated to the intricate details of qualifying. He also arrived in the series as an unknown without high-speed oval experience, another area in which he’s becoming more confident.
“I still feel like I have a bit to learn, and my confidence goes up every time I go on an oval and get another race under my belt, but it’s still something that’s not quite second nature to me yet,” he said. “In going to next year without that kind of apprehension of ovals, there’s still more I need to understand.”
Rossi explained why, until this past season, he had targeted Formula One as his eventual landing spot. He wanted to successfully represent the United States in that challenging global series. What he quickly learned this year is the Verizon IndyCar Series is just as challenging, if not more, and requires a mastery of disciplines to succeed on different tracks.
That’s why he’s now committed to the Verizon IndyCar Series and no longer thinking Formula One. As strange as it might sound, Rossi was humbled by this season’s setbacks, perhaps more affected by those races than appreciating the positive impact of the Indianapolis 500 win.
“When (winning) doesn’t happen,” he said, “the first thing I want to do is keep coming back until that’s something that is accomplished.
“Just because you win that one, you can’t kind of step off the gas, if you will.”