Alexander Rossi’s disappearance into the Kettle Moraine Valley on Sunday was a fine reminder of something we rarely get to see.
In the era of spec cars, spec tires, and tightly controlled engine regulations, the Californian’s vanishing act was especially remarkable as he left the rest of the Dallara DW12 drivers a full 28.4 seconds behind at the finish line.
That fact that the 27-year-old has done it twice in one season, first blitzing the field by 20.2 seconds on the way to an April victory in Long Beach, should be a cause for outright concern by those who hope to prevent the Andretti Autosport driver from earning his first IndyCar championship.
Among the rarest feats in IndyCar, Rossi’s utter dominance reminded me of a few other instances where, as the old Willie Nelson song goes, it was time to ‘Turn out the lights…the party’s over…’
2000 Indianapolis 500
Juan Pablo Montoya owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the moment he turned his first lap during Rookie Orientation.
Having stood and observed from the first pit stall at IMS while serving as an assistant engineer with another rookie, I watched JPM ignore the instructions he was given to ease his way around the Speedway on his first outing. The mercurial pilot rowed through the gears leaving pit lane, kept his foot buried in the throttle rounding Turn 4 and blasted into Turn 1 — on cold tires, no less — and lifted just as he was turning in at an ungodly rate of speed.
The tail of his Chip Ganassi Racing GForce-Oldsmobile slewed sideways, of course, because that’s what happens when you treat your maiden lap at Indy like it’s the start of a qualifying run, after rocketing down front straight on Lap 1, then lift, and then play catch-the-slide as the car drifts towards the apex. Completely unfazed — and I can picture the mischievous Colombian (pictured at top clowning with photographers in victory lane) laughing at the Indy 500 legends who told him to be wary of Turn 1 — he mashed the throttle to haul the car out of the corner and kept going until he was angrily waved into the pits, where he was asked to atone for his sins.
What followed when qualifying got under way was foretold at ROP: Montoya watched as the Menards Racing team and Greg Ray went mad trying to take pole position away, and when they succeeded, he had the look of someone who couldn’t understand why they made the effort.
Leading 167 of 200 laps, Montoya toyed with the field of 33.
His official margin of victory was a modest 7.1 seconds over Buddy Lazier, but if you were there that day (my driver, Davey Hamilton, was out of contention early when we had battery problems, so I had time to watch and marvel at JPM’s drive while we cruised around 12 laps down), it could have been 20 seconds, or two laps, if he was motivated to drive at 100 percent the entire time. Classic Montoya.
1988 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach
Al Unser Jr. would open his account as ‘King of the Beach’ by winning the first of four consecutive visits to the Southern California street course in stunning fashion. Driving the unloved March 88C chassis during a year where Lola’s T88/00 and Penske’s PC17s were notably faster, Little Al’s Chevy-powered Galles Racing entry, dressed in the sublime colors of Valvoline, exploited the one advantage the British car had to offer. Carrying a downforce and drag penalty that made the March a liability on superspeedways, the extra aerodynamic assistance made Long Beach and the other street races at Toronto, Meadowlands, and Tamiami Park a playground for the 88C.Little Al would claim four wins in 1988 — all on street courses — and Long Beach was a prime indicator of what he could achieve. Qualifying fourth, Mario Andretti, then Unser Jr., and Michael Andretti swept past polesitter Danny Sullivan into Turn 1, and by the end of the lap, the Galles driver took the lead from Mario entering the Turn 11 hairpin.
Sneaking away at a half-second per lap, Little Al put the Andrettis deep in his rearview mirrors by the first pit stop. A jammed wheel nut at the rear cost the No. 3 Galles Chevy the lead, and in time, with Mario delayed by a flat tire, Little Al had Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi to chase down from third. An eight-second deficit to Sullivan on Lap 36 was cut to less than two seconds by Lap 41. Fittipaldi was dispatched with ease, and Sullivan, in the amazing PC17-Chevy, admitted, “I couldn’t hold him. He was really hooked up.”
Once Lap 50 arrived, just past the halfway mark, Unser Jr. was leading by eight seconds, and when he left the pits the second time a short while later, he held 26 seconds over the field. By the end of the 95th and final lap, Little Al crossed the finish line with a lap and a half lead over second-place Bobby Rahal. Sure, there was some adversity along the way that struck Sullivan and the Andrettis which helped the future two-time Indy 500 winner mollywhop his rivals, but nobody was going to catch Little Al that day in the LBGP.
1987 Living Well/Provimi 200 at Road America
The event carrying the names of Arie Luyendyk’s primary sponsors went well for the Dutchman. His No. 71 Hemelgarn Racing March 87C-Cosworth improved from 12th on the grid to fourth after 50 hard-fought laps. Unfortunately, he, along with the 24 other drivers who weren’t named Mario Andretti, finished the race in a different zip code.
The 1969 Indy 500 winner took pole with a lap of 1m52.687s in No. 5 Lola T87/00-Chevy. Second went to Roberto Guerrero in his Granatelli Racing Lola T87/00-Cosworth. At a 1m53.640s lap, or 0.97s slower on a flying lap of the 4.0-mile road course.
“The name of the game is turn-in,” Andretti said after climbing from the pretty Hanna Auto Wash entry fielded by Newman-Haas Racing. “Especially here where there are lots of quick 90-degree turns. If you can get in quick and capture the back end, you’ve got a good lap.”
Mario’s clear-by-a-second pole would set the stage for a comical rout on race day. Setting the blueprint for Rossi in 2019, Andretti led into Turn 1 and was never headed. There was a bit of drama, though, that Rossi managed to escape: A light rain started to fall just as the field pulled away on slick tires for the pace laps.
A driver or two — including Mario’s son Michael — got close to his gearbox in the opening laps, but once he settled in, Andretti turned the race into a showcase for his peerless car control.
“After the last stop, I started to conserve fuel by short shifting. But the fuel light didn’t flicker until the cool-off lap, so maybe I could’ve run harder if I had to.”
Leading Lap 1 through Lap 50, the rain subsided before long and Mario owned an amazing 41.08s lead over Geoff Brabham’s Galles Racing March 87C-Judd when the checkered flag waved.
If winning by over 40 seconds wasn’t enough of a statement, Andretti conceded a rather amazing point in Victory Lane: It could have been bigger.
“After the last stop, I started to conserve fuel by short shifting,” he said. “But the fuel light didn’t flicker until the cool-off lap, so maybe I could’ve run harder if I had to.”
Oh, and there’s one other note to make. Mario raced at Road America with a separated shoulder.
Two weeks prior at the Quaker State 500 on the 2.5-mile Pocono superspeedway, a monster crash on Lap 88 of the race left Andretti in a bad way. His left arm in a sling, he arrived in Wisconsin with a battered wing and lots of high-effort/high-speed corners to navigate in the race.
If Mario’s toughness was ever in question, it was answered while crushing 25 of the finest CART/PPG Indy Car World Series drivers at Elkhart Lake.
“During the final 10 laps the tape on my shoulder came loose,” he said, “and I could feel my (shoulder) bone rattling in the Carousel…”