SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Alexander Rossi exited his car like an animal being released from its cage.
For nearly three hours in unexpectedly steamy conditions Sunday, the racer had thrashed his way around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had manhandled a car that didn’t have as much horsepower as it needed. He had overcome a quicksand trench of a pit stop when his team couldn’t get fuel into his car for a time-bending 23 seconds. He’d damn near been killed by a laps-down car that wouldn’t get out of the way. A red flag had erased what looked like a late advantage.
Rossi dealt with all of that adversity and still took the lead in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing five different times. Along the way, he also led the event in gasps caused, applause generated, fist pumps produced, and he even managed to win over the admiration of the crustiest old Indianapolis 500 press box residents, those who’d worked so hard three years ago to discount his surprise Indianapolis victory.
The day was his. The race was his.
Then he lost.
So, instead of pulling into racing’s most fabled winner’s circle for the second time in four years, the No. 27 Napa Honda drove past that exit, forced to park way down pit row, a several-minute, sweat-covered jog from where he wanted to be and almost was. The 27-year-old Californian stood up in the cockpit of his Indy car, yanked off his Steve McQueen-sticker-covered helmet, and resisted throwing his face into his hands.
In an instant, his Andretti Autosport crew converged around him. Moments later, a swarm of 20 members of the media started forming a second circle. But with the same nimbleness that he’d used to repeatedly seize the lead of the 103rd Indianapolis 500, the race’s runner-up slipped through the crowd and into the shade of his team’s pit box.
He snatched up a water bottle with a shaky hand. He finally rubbed the moisture from his face. He politely took in the consolations of his crew. Then he stepped out from under the shade to face the heat of the questions.
“I want to say first that I am so happy for Simon,” he said of Simon Pagenaud, the driver celebrating in that winner’s circle at Rossi’s expense. Moments earlier, the two had traded the lead four times over the race’s final 14 laps, the last coming over the final two trips around the 2.5-mile rectangular racetrack. “But I also want to say that I am very unhappy for me.”
Rossi smiled. It was forced.
“I don’t know if people truly understand the level of disappointment. Everything you do all year is to work toward this day and this race. And you only get so many chances in your life,” he said. “Now, you have to cross one of those chances off the list. It was right there and then it wasn’t and I won’t get over that. I don’t want to get over that.”
His comments were a continuation of the fire that was on display throughout the race, and those comments explained why he’d unleashed that fire.
Rossi’s reputation has always been that of an even-keeled, never-rattled guy with a low pulse almost to a fault. But on Sunday, when that brutal pit stop (the fuel nozzle wouldn’t latch on to his fuel intake) erased a half-hour’s worth of furious slice-and-dice work through the field, he threw his hands around in frustration, to the delight of the hundreds of thousands watching in person and the television audience at home. He again loosed those hands while in the middle of another frantic climb through the field, shaking his fist at Oriol Servia after the much slower driver nearly forced Rossi into the concrete wall that separates the pits from the frontstretch. The crowd roared with delight as Rossi jetted past them, in a gaggle of traffic, with only one hand on the wheel and the other pointed at Servia.
“What is he doing?!” Rossi screamed over his radio to his team, and by way of TV, the world. “This is the biggest joke I’ve ever been a part of!”
After the race, his opinion had not mellowed. “It was one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen in a race car. To be squeezed into the wall at 230 mph. It’s unacceptable. It’s how you kill people. And that’s not me being dramatic. That’s an indisputable fact.”
So is Rossi’s record in this race. In four starts, he has finished first, seventh, fourth and second, and led laps in all four. When he won the much-hyped 2016 Indy 500, many groused that the rookie was not worthy of having his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy and certainly not deserving enough to win the coveted 100th edition of the race. They wrote that he was merely a Formula One development reject, in his ride only because he brought sponsor money, and that his win was second-class because it was based on fuel strategy. Heck, anyone who just didn’t wreck and listened to their race engineers could do that, right?
“There is certainly a part of you that takes that talk and uses it as fuel,” Rossi said. “You don’t think I’m worthy of a win? Fine. But if I keep winning, then that fixes that. If you win, you win people over. I think real race fans and real racers recognize it when you are a person that is solely motivated by doing whatever it takes to keep winning.”
In the three Indy 500 starts since that 2016 win as well as his five other “regular-season” IndyCar victories, there has been nothing to discount about his approach. Computers and calculators can’t cook up the racer Rossi has become. Only his right foot could have created that.
So, those who still pine for the fearless film-captured days of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti are beginning to surrender to the millennial who repeatedly electrified the Brickyard on Sunday, with slingshot moves into the lead and three-wide passes with his left-side tires daring to touch the slick green infield grass. Sunday’s performance was the exclamation point — and a little bit of a middle finger — at the end of the case Rossi has been making for the past four years: that he is the old-school American badass racer so many had feared might not come around again.
Now, a full 20 minutes after the checkered flag, speaking to one final lingering reporter, Rossi was still trying to calm his body and his mind. He was failing at the task. He’d taken a break from talking to accept the embrace of his girlfriend. He took another break to climb back into the shade of the pit box to sit and stare at the scoring monitor showing that he’d lost the race by .209 seconds. Then he stepped back out for one more interview.
The media horde had long ago shuffled off to go find the Indy 500 winner. The Indy 500 loser was still standing on the gas.
“The thing about winning this race is that once you do it, all you want to do is win it again,” Rossi said. “The second I walk away from you, I will be thinking about the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. I live here now. I live this place and this race 364 days just to get back to this one day.”
Rossi was asked if he heard the booming reactions to his manic moves on the track. Did he sense the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grandstand starting to lean toward the dude in the Steve McQueen helmet who’d raced like Bullitt?
“I think they know me now,” he said. “I think they know what drives me now. I hope that is obvious in how I race. I will see them right back here one year from today. But hopefully one spot higher on that pylon.”