Alexander Rossi was in a slight state of bewilderment after learning he’s about to embark on his sixth season as an NTT IndyCar Series driver.
As a 24-year-old rookie in 2016, Rossi was at the leading edge of IndyCar’s next-generation talent, but now, at 29, he’s become part of the establishment — expected to win and vie for championships. And he’s not entirely sure how to process the realization.
“It sucks… it means I’m getting old!” he said with a laugh. “It’s weird because IndyCar still feels new to me in a lot of ways. I don’t know why, I guess it’s because IndyCar seasons are pretty condensed, right? It doesn’t feel like you’ve been doing it that long because there’s such big off-seasons. Whereas in Europe, you start in March and you go all the way through to November and then testing is immediately right after in January.
“Whereas here, you’re flat out for five or six months, and then it’s a six-month off-season, which is why time, years tick off so quickly when it doesn’t feel like you drive all that much, if that makes sense? But, regardless, it’s amazing to think this has become my career in IndyCar.”
After completing his open-wheel journey in Europe, Rossi left Formula 1 and arrived with Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta in IndyCar without expectations on how long the chapter would last. Earning victory on his Indy 500 debut all but guaranteed American open-wheel racing would become a fixture in his life, and in that regard, IndyCar provided a new and welcome foundation in his life.
“Andretti feels like home in a lot of ways,” he said. “I was actually in the shop this morning and whether they’re on my car or not, I would say I’m on a first name basis with 60- or 70-percent of the guys there. And I have a lot of really good relationships with people from all different sides of the business and the team. And that’s really cool for me. So, even though six years makes me feel old, it’s also been an amazing opportunity to grow with the team.”
From that place of ease and comfort, the Andretti Autosport veteran is ready to wipe the slate clean after a tumultuous 2020 IndyCar campaign and get back to a more familiar place as a championship contender. Six years in, with a second in 2018 and a third in 2019, Rossi isn’t ready — or wired — to accept his run to ninth in the standings last year. It’s safe to say the Californian has one goal in mind, and that’s to become IndyCar’s newest champion.
“How last year went for us, it’s not even remotely in my realm of acceptability, but I’ve mentioned it before and I think in a lot of ways, if you’re going to have a year like that, it’s good that it happened in 2020 because ultimately, no one really wants to remember much about 2020,” he said of the winless season where he placed ninth in the standings.
“And the other thing is, we learned a lot from it. So it was hard lessons. It was painful, very public lessons, which are unfortunate. You’d always like to sort things out behind closed doors and then everything looks all good on the outside, but that wasn’t the case. In a lot of ways, I think the team just changed a lot of our identity.”
With the exception of Andretti’s Colton Herta who was a title contender all year and finished third in the championship, Rossi and the rest of the team suffered through a woefully uncompetitive start to 2020. Heavy introspection and immense effort to recalibrate its program led to a strong mid-season rebound, and while the year as a whole won’t be remembered with fondness, the turnaround should serve the team well when the next championship run begins this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
“In the second half of the year, and again this off-season, we looked at areas where we were weak and other teams were better and where other drivers were doing a better job and just the whole gambit,” Rossi said. “Whether it was from just qualifying driver performance, to race performance, to pit stops, to strategy, to car prep, to whatever, we just took a big global snapshot of it, and we were like, ‘Well, this isn’t good enough. We need to fix all of these things and make these things better.”
“And everyone was super-receptive to it because they hated last year as much as I did. I think Colton was a bit of an outlier. I think that he had a good year, but I don’t think he was happy with it, either. I know those guys and they were able to be consistent and not really make mistakes and not have failures and they just kind of racked up the points. And I think that’s why he got the result in the championship, which was great, but he came off of a 2019 season winning two races, and got one last year, which was the only one for all of us.
“We’ve had a really productive off-season. I’m really impressed with the whole organization and the steps we’ve taken to address what needed addressing. And yeah, I feel positive. Cautiously optimistic about what we’re going to be able to accomplish this year.”
Rossi knows what to expect among the familiar title contenders. Reigning champion Scott Dixon will be in the mix as he pursues his seventh IndyCar crown. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion, and Herta should be there. Penske’s trio of champions in Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power are always a threat, and the likes of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato have aggressive intentions to visit upon the series.
And then there’s a newcomer to the list of combatants who have earned Rossi’s respect in the championship conversation.
“Pato is going to be annoying, for sure,” he says of the Arrow McLaren SP driver who placed fourth in the 2020 standings. “He’s going to be one of those guys. So, I mean, so just add him to the list of the guys that you got to beat. I think we saw that last year. I think we saw it when he was driving for Andretti in Indy Lights, how good he is. So I think he’s definitely going to deliver on the expectations around him for this year, which is great for the sport, obviously.
“But yeah, it’s annoying for the guys like me who are now going on to Year 6 and it’s like, ‘Oh, add another one to the list of your Scotts, and Josefs, and Wills, and Ryans, and et cetera.”
Rossi also expects four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais and the A.J. Foyt Racing team to pose some problems this year.
“With what Sebastien’s been able to do at times with Foyt, I think that’s huge,” he said. “It goes back to show the driver in this sport still plays a really big role. You look at Formula 1, for example, ultimately the driver’s irrelevant, right? The driver is just the tool to get the car to its lap time. Whereas in IndyCar, you still can make a difference to a certain extent, which is why it is so competitive and it is such an amazing show each and every weekend.”
As some of IndyCar’s elder champions and stars head into 2021 with aspirations of earning one last title, or capturing their first before retirement calls, Rossi is fortunate to have a long runway ahead to make his championship dreams come true. But in typical fashion, he would love nothing more than to spoil their plans.
“I’m fortunate enough to, at least from an age standpoint, be very far away from feeling that type of pressure in my mind, but you know, in this sport, you’re not guaranteed anything, right?” he said. “And that’s the thing, so for me, it’s always, ‘Well, you got to maximize this weekend because you don’t know about the next one,’ type thing.
“That’s how my whole career has always gone. And you’re fighting for a right. You’re fighting for your job because there’s always someone that’s fast and good and such that can take it. So from that standpoint, that always exists. Whether you’re in a contract year or you’re in the middle of a multi-year deal, I love that same mindset every single time I get in the car.
“So yeah, 100 percent: Anything less than a championship this year is unacceptable for me. But not from an age standpoint, but purely just because that’s why I’m here, and everything else is just not that interesting.”