It’s been a whirlwind year for Alexander Rossi, winning the epic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in stunning fashion as a rookie.
It’s an even more compelling story when you learn that the Californian had never set foot on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s hallowed grounds until just two months before his life-altering victory, as told by track president Doug Boles.
Boles entertained and enlightened a crowd this afternoon during a question-and-answer session at the INDYCAR/Indianapolis Motor Speedway display inside the Performance Racing Industry trade show at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. Boles spoke on a variety of topics, including the milestone 100th running and next May’s 101st, as well as other events on tap in 2017 including the SCCA Runoffs, quarter midgets and karting races, the ongoing Lights at the Brickyard holiday display and an LPGA tournament set for the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course.
But the 50-year-old’s description of Rossi’s first glimpse of the great facility was the most memorable. It was March 27 and Rossi, then the newly signed Andretti-Herta Autosport driver, was invited to join fellow Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Conor Daly for Easter dinner at the home of Daly’s mom and stepfather – Beth and Doug Boles.
The topic came up that Rossi had never been to IMS, so they hopped in a car and drove to the track.
“We pulled one of the Corvettes out of the pace car room and I gave the keys to Conor, and let Alex and Conor take some laps on both the oval and the road course, just to get a sense for it. And then we wandered around,” Boles said, adding they also spent time in the grandstand area that was undergoing reconstruction last year as part of Project 100.
“(Rossi) hadn’t been and just to be able to see it – that’s maybe the best part of any of our jobs at the speedway, when we get to introduce somebody, whether it’s a race car driver or a visitor who’s never been to the speedway. There’s nothing more magical than walking somebody out trackside and having them go, ‘Oh my gosh, the place is huge!’”
Sixty-three days after first seeing the IMS yard of bricks up close, Rossi was coasting across them in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda to win the 100th Indy 500 before the first announced sellout in race history.
Boles said that the speedway staff has used the overwhelming success of the historic race as a springboard to continued success for the 101st running and beyond.
“Obviously the 100th was a milestone, it was a great way for us to celebrate our history in a grander way than we ever had before,” Boles said. “We’ve found with our (ticket) renewals and in our conversations with fans that fans are more energized now than they’ve ever been.
“A sellout (in 2017) is probably difficult to reach, but I will tell you that the numbers, based on our renewals and the energy level we’ve received, are going to be significantly better than they were in 2015. And every year since 2011, we’ve been on an increase in terms of the number of folks who have come to the Indy 500.
“(Ticket sales for the 2017 Indy 500) may not be right where we were for the 100th, but it is going to be significantly better than the 99th and we’re going in the right direction. The Indy 500 is as healthy as it’s been in 20 years and it’s just getting better every day.”
Boles said the heritage of the facility itself plays a great role in drawing the largest single-day sporting event attendance in the world annually. While the track surface has evolved from crushed rock and tar to brick and then asphalt since IMS opened in 1909, it still boasts the same design set forth by track founders James Allison, Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler.
“It is the same layout, same width, same banking,” Boles said. “If you did a core sample (under the asphalt surface), you go right down to the dirt, the crushed limestone, the tar and the bricks. It’s all there and that’s what’s so cool. You are running on the place that people have run over and over and over again for 107 years. That’s why running on the oval is really special.”