Alexander Rossi’s race engineer would like to apologize for putting you to sleep on Sunday. Actually, that’s a lie. Jeremy Milless wants more outcomes like the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach because he knows those performances are a rarity in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“They don’t come around often. I would say I’ve had two of those days in my career, and it was at Iowa with Josef [Newgarden], and this race with Alex,” Milless told RACER. “You’ll take as many as you can get.”
With Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, Milless helped the Tennessean become a regular winner before Roger Penske came calling to sign the future 2017 IndyCar champion. Shifting to Andretti Autosport the same year, Milless and Rossi embarked upon a relationship that has generated five wins to date, including a strong run to second in last year’s championship.
Despite Rossi’s race-long mastery last weekend, there was a nagging notion that bad luck might intervene and spoil the slumber party.
“It’s for sure fear that everything was going to go away,” Milless admits. “We were coming to the end. We had like a 20-second lead, but Dixon was on [Firestone] reds, so I was worried about that. And then, I think it was Marco [Andretti] radioed in that there was a piece of debris on the back stretch, and I’m like, ‘Oh no. No yellow. No yellow. No yellow flag dance.’ It’s just a yellow flag, but if everybody had lined up, and Dixon’s on reds, it could have been over.”
Rossi, like Dixon, and his team owner Michael Andretti, has yet to find a car he can’t drive to the front. Where some drivers are devastatingly effective only when the car is performing exactly to their liking, Rossi has demonstrated a unique ability to ignore self-imposed limitations. As long as the car isn’t a diabolical mess, Rossi can be found living within an inch of the walls, making unbelievable speed.
Sunday was a perfect example of his ability to find the extreme limits with the No. 27 Honda and spend the afternoon in its grace.
“It just comes down to chassis balance, honestly,” says Milless. “Who has the best balance? Say that you’re with Josef, where we almost lapped the field at Iowa. We just had the best balance. We had no understeer, and everybody else had massive understeer. And by the end of the race… when they did the last restart, everybody was much closer to us, right? I’ve been at races with this team where Ryan Hunter-Reay has something small, like 50 pounds of rear spring rate difference, and a little bit of toe, or something like that, and his car is awesome in the race and ours ‘meh.’
“It’s hitting everything right. It’s not just a damping thing or something like that; just getting the balance exactly right is the biggest thing. We always say… all of the big things we do with damping and things like that that we do in development, that’s the last tenth of a second. Everything else, you could take a stock Dallara and if you hit the balance right, you’ll be within a tenth of the best guys.”
In order to hand Rossi a car with perfect balance, the No. 27’s driver and engineer must have effective communication — strong interpersonal chemistry — to make the subtle tweaks needed to disappear into the distance. With Milless serving as the bigger personality of the two, they’ve found a happy and sometimes hilarious medium.
“After he ran with Penske in their sports cars the first time, I called my buddy (Penske engineer) Jonathan Diuguid and said, ‘Hey, what’d you think of Rossi?’ I think his definition was perfect. ‘That dude is all business.’ That’s what it is. He just gets in and does it. There’s rarely any little… spats on the radio. It’s nice,” he said.
“Well, there was one spat this weekend where he was yelling at us and then he made a mistake in practice and I was yelling at him. And after the session, he was like, ‘What was that all about?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, you yelled at me last session, this is my turn!’ You went out on a brand-new set of black tires and flat-spotted them the first time, dummy. What are you doing?”
The loose, easy relationship between Milless and Rossi is also an important part of their success. If it generates authoritative wins like the one seen on Sunday, look for more engineers to pick silly fights with their drivers…
“Nobody sees it on TV, but he’s a lot of fun,” Milless added. “Rarely do we ever get after each other, but you have the ability to do it if you need to and nobody’s gonna get their feelings hurt. Each of us will own up if we make a mistake, that’s for sure. It’s usually me, though…”