Trust, teamwork and a little magic can make miracles

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In deference to the great history of the event, I was supposed to call the start of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network as the cars came off Turn 4 to take the green flag May 29.

But Mark Jaynes, who succeeded me this year as lead announcer, surprised me when he handed things off at the beginning of the pace lap – one lap earlier than expected. I paused for Jerry Baker, working high in Turn, 1 to join in, but on my intercom Mark said, “Keep going,” and I did. The field was perfect on the approach to the line and the green came out. For the 29th and last time as the “Voice” of the Indy 500 on radio or TV, I called the start. But the Indianapolis 500 rolls on down the brick road to history.

The field of 33 comes off the line for the 100th Indy 500 with a rookie in the center of the fourth row. Alexander Rossi is told by his team over the radio how to drive the parade and pace laps.

“Just follow the guys in front of you and do what they do,” he is told. This moment was improbable at best. It almost never happened for a variety of reasons. What followed was another miracle by the little team that never gives up.

Bryan Herta, a former winning Indy car driver was all but beaten last December. But Herta is not a man to give up. The endless search for sponsor money was returning little for his Bryan Herta Autosport team. He created an alliance with his old teammate and boss, Michael Andretti. After a search in February, Alexander Rossi was drafted to drive the No. 98 car with Herta calling race strategy from the pit stand.

I stood by the car at a Sebring International Raceway test when this 24-year-old driver with high hopes in Formula One stalled twice just trying to get the car rolling at his first test. The clutch paddle is set up by the team engineers. Stalling, at first is no shame, almost all do it. But it does speak to the tall climb Rossi was about to make.

In May, Andretti found the NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship for Rossi’s car in a casual passing. Michael mentioned it almost as an afterthought as the NAPA representative was walking away. “What about the 98 car?”

“We’ll do it.” Great call by NAPA Auto Parts.

One of the most important things in Indy car racing is trust. While it may have been difficult at times, Rossi learned this team knows how to win.

Indy cars have eight settings to control the engine performance and fuel consumption. In planning race strategy, Herta decided picked the eight “maps” he wanted and loaded them into the engine management system. It turns out he didn’t load the one he really needed for this particular race. What was needed was a plan and teamwork.

The team radio sounded like mission control with Herta calmly talking his rookie through everything. He was constantly pushing Rossi to save fuel, constantly changing the engine settings, the maps, to match the needs. The fuel numbers he had to hit were almost impossible.

Numbers like 4.8 miles per gallon were called. Rossi’s discipline held true. And he got a lot of help from teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell, drafting those two as much as possible late in the race. It was the only way he could save so much fuel.

Herta said the same thing constantly. “Save fuel, that’s all that matters. Save fuel.”

With four laps to go, teammate Carlos Munoz had to pit from first place for a splash. The race lead belonged to Rossi. But could he make it? The team wasn’t at all sure.

Rossi started the last lap with four-tenths of a gallon left. Herta yelled, “Clutch!” Rossi pushed the clutch button to disengage from the engine at the white flag to coast.

The change in the engine note fooled everyone. “He’s out of fuel!” they yelled. Rossi re-engaged in Turn 1 as the team all screamed “Full throttle, full throttle!”

On the backstretch there was more coasting, then full throttle. As the car came off Turn 4, Herta again yelled, “Clutch!”

The car coasted and the checkered flag waved first over the No. 98 car and Alexander Rossi. The legendary 98 that carried legendary Parnelli Jones to victory in 1963 has now made Rossi the first American rookie winner since Louis Meyer in 1928.

Teamwork and good luck, that’s what wins races. Luck in this case is defined as preparation added to opportunity. Herta rolled the dice and won. Teamwork. Trust. Rossi trusted the team and was able to radio to his pit, “I’m so proud of you guys.”

The 100th running was over. A rookie backed by a magic team won. 

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