(This is the third of a four-part series by noted motorsports reporter Will Buxton chronicling the incredible 2016 journey of Alexander Rossi, from little-known Verizon IndyCar Series rookie to champion of the historic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.)
The Andretti Autosport cars had been working well all month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil got underway, it became immediately obvious that the team would be at the sharp end all day. Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay fought for the lead, Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti were in the mix, and rookie Alexander Rossi settled into the groove.
With his first pit stop out of the way, Rossi started to look comfortable, running consistently in the upper reaches of the field. But on his next two stops, disaster struck as his fuel rig either failed to connect or disconnect. Precious seconds and places in the field ticked away with each agonizingly long stop. With 170 miles completed, Rossi was down to P20.
Unperturbed, the Californian put all his learning to use, picking off his rivals and posting what was to be the fastest lap of the race to get himself back up into the top 10. On Lap 96, he pitted for the fourth time after Sage Karam collected the SAFER Barrier, bringing out a caution flag. But another fuel rig issue dropped Rossi to 25th place.
“I’ll be honest, I was on the verge of crying,” Rossi confides. “I had really been putting the car and myself through it to make those places back up. We’d been in dangerous situations a few times just trying to make up for those bad stops, and I wasn’t prepared to keep doing that times four.”
It was at this point that Rossi, team co-owner/race strategist Bryan Herta and Tom German, his experienced engineer, took the biggest risk of their lives. And one that would win them the race.
“We were still under yellow and we were talking about strategy,” Rossi recalls. “We came in to top off (with fuel), just to have the playbook in hand if we wanted to. So we came in to do two splash-and-gos on (Laps) 99 and 101 and just before the restart they gave me a fuel (mileage) number which seemed fine at the time. It was a 4.3 (miles per gallon). Normal running is a 3.9 and I felt like I could do that pretty easy.”
Unbeknownst to the rest of the field, Rossi, now in 29th place and the last driver on the lead lap, would be pitting just twice more. Almost everyone else would be going for three.
Over the next 13 laps, he made up eight positions. But when Mikhail Aleshin hit the wall and Conor Daly collected the Russian, a yellow flag threw a spanner in the works. If Rossi pitted now, he’d be in 21st and on the same strategy as everyone else.
There was only one choice. Roll the dice. Go for broke. Stay out.
At the restart, Alex Tagliani led the field away and Rossi, in second thanks to almost the entire field pitting under caution, fought hard to get past. It was here that fortune began to favor the brave. Under the previous caution, Rossi’s Andretti stablemates Hunter-Reay and Bell had made contact on pit road. Costing them a lap in the process, both were now out of contention for the win over which they’d been fighting all day.
“The team radioed Townsend and said that I needed help,” Rossi said. The veteran driving a one-off with Andretti in the Indy 500 came to his aid by running in front of Rossi, allowing the rookie to ride in his wake and save precious drops of Sunoco E85R ethanol.
“What Townsend actually did was incredible,” Rossi added. “He didn’t just sit in front and tow me around. He did a whole (fuel) stint of qualifying laps. I mean, he was doing huge speeds and I could just sit behind him. I was doing quali laps, in the race, at about 20 percent throttle. That was everything, really.”
Rossi pitted from the lead on Lap 138, picking up last place on the lead lap in P22 when he rejoined. As luck would have it, he came out behind Bell again and the duo continued their slingshot run.
Lap 149 came around and most of the leaders pitted under green. Rossi moved up to eighth. With 37 laps to run, Sato brought out the yellow and Rossi had no option but to stop for fuel and tires. He emerged with farther to run on a full tank than anyone thought possible. Thirty-six laps and 90 miles – nearly 20 miles longer than a typical full stint.
Rossi saw the green flag from ninth place with 33 laps to run, but the team had already been on the radio with dire news of the fuel number he needed to make the finish.
“When Bryan told me I had to hit a 4.7, I was just, ‘What?!’ A 4.3 was a big ask on what was traditional, so to go another four points on that just seemed too much. I said no way could I do that. I honestly thought they were kidding me. But then it became a little personal challenge, a vendetta of mine. I set myself the goal of figuring it out. I just started experimenting, trying anything to get the number up.
“At this point I was behind Scott Dixon, who was trying the same thing. I knew that the pace was fine as he’s a good benchmark and that I could just play around. I was just trying to create something out of nothing and, after nine or 10 laps, I hit a 4.7. After that, I just kept repeating it.
“With about 15 (laps) to go, Ryan (Hunter-Reay) came up behind me and I radioed in and told the team to send him past me so I could latch onto the back of him. But differently to when Townsend had punched in the fast laps, I needed Ryan to run slow to keep at my pace but also give me a tow.
“He was literally driving the whole track in his mirrors, just setting his distance based on my speed. It got to the point where he had to cut the rope and go because he was almost having to brake to stay with me. He committed fully to helping us get to the end, he really did.”
But even with Rossi hitting a fuel mileage number that had seemed impossible, the best math had him running out on Lap 199 of 200.
Next in Part 4: “Thar’s when the nerves hit … waiting for someone to fly past.”