INDIANAPOLIS – The 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” turned out to be just that: great.
Fans lined up outside the gates hours before the traditional cannon sounded to signal the track's opening at 6 a.m. ET. They packed the paddock, Gasoline Alley, the starting grid and the grandstands. Even the rain predicted for Sunday afternoon stayed away to help ensure everything went off without a hitch.
The roughly 350,000 who showed up stood and cheered in anticipation of 500 miles of excitement as the cars came to the green flag and began to race into history.
In the end, they experienced a three-hour roller coaster with more twists and turns than a Verizon IndyCar Series road course.
The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a nail-chomping ride that delivered lead changes throughout, accidents in the pit lane involving some of the early contenders, a final flurry of pit stops that juggled the field and an unexpected rookie winner.
When it was all over, No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver Alexander Rossi became the first rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 since Helio Castroneves of Team Penske in 2001. The 24-year-old Californian is also only the second U.S driver to drink the milk in the last decade, joining teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won in 2014.
It was a popular result with the crowd after a pitched battle between several drivers for the first 197 laps gave way to Rossi's clever and risky fuel strategy that snatched the win from under his rivals' noses.
An almost unbelievable 36-lap final run to the checkers delivered the win to Rossi, who avoided the need to peel into the pits for a splash of fuel as the laps wound down. It was so close that he sputtered to the finish line and his car had to be towed to Victory Circle following the race so he could have the traditional drink of milk.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off – I can't believe that we've done this,” Rossi said.
“I am just so thankful to do this on the 100th running. I will cherish the fact that at one point we were 33rd (actually 29th from Laps 101-103) and we rolled the dice and made it happen.”
Rossi took the lead with four laps to go when Andretti Autosport teammate Carlos Munoz pitted for fuel. When the No. 26 car emerged from the stop, Rossi was almost 17 seconds ahead. That gap shrink to 13 seconds in a lap as Rossi willed his car to the finish. His Honda engine began to suck fumes in Turn 3 on the final lap, but Rossi was able to coast to the checkers 4.5 seconds ahead of Munoz.
Although Rossi managed to make great mileage in his final stint, his victory showed why racing is a team sport. If it hadn't been for No 29 Andretti Autosport driver Townsend Bell and No. 28 Andretti Autosport driver Hunter-Reay, Rossi may not have won the day.
Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 champion, led early and looked to be a contender for the win before his day was ruined by a disastrous pit stop that saw his and Bell's cars come together and both end up nose first into the pit wall. Two laps down on the leaders, Hunter-Reay played windbreak for Rossi in the late stages helping him safe fuel after Bell did the same a bit earlier.
“Ryan went past me and was not pulling away,” Rossi said. “Ryan was unbelievable in helping me get to the finish. He was giving me a tow at the end. I didn't know if I had enough fuel.”
Bell and Hunter-Reay’s assistance likely allowed Rossi to save just enough ethanol to get close enough before his tank dried up. It also helped team owner Michael Andretti ease the pain of paying for the crash damage from the accident that took two of his cars out of contention.
“It does make it easier (to pay for the repairs),” Andretti said. “It was such an unfortunate thing for those two because they were really, really strong and I think they were going to be major factors at the end of the race. I honestly couldn't believe it when I saw them take each other out.”