The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was transformed back into an oval Monday after the Indianapolis Grand Prix on the road course the previous weekend, giving defending champion Alexander Rossi and other drivers their first shake-down laps to prepare for the Indy 500.
The Formula One refugee was certainly a surprise winner of the 500, especially considering that he was not just a rookie at the Speedway but had never driven a race car on an oval.
A road race fan even as a kid, Rossi set his sights on a Formula One career as a teenager. After winning world-wide and U.S. championships in the 2008 BMW series, the Nevada City native set out for Europe.
Rossi won 43 races in Europe, one of every five he entered, in the GP2 and GP3 ranks before becoming a reserve driver for various Formula One teams. A short-lived stint as the No. 1 driver for Team Marussia ended his European career, before he was wooed to the IndyCar series by Andretti Autosport.
“The odd thing is I never watched NASCAR on TV,” Rossi acknowledged during a test session earlier this year at Sonoma Raceway. “I had never been inside an oval in my life and the first time was a test at Phoenix” several weeks before the 500.
Tutoring from the Andretti Autosport team was short on details as they pushed him out for his first practice laps.
“They told me to figure it out,” said Rossi, reflecting the team’s confidence in his driving talent. “The biggest challenge was not driving, but learning what the car needed. We had a good car and a good team. I just had to drive and figure it out.”
A firm, multi-year contract with Andretti Autosport has eliminated offseason uncertainty about where he would be racing from one season to the next, which had plagued his Formula One efforts.
“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve known before February what I was going to be doing for the season,” he said, “and it takes away that distraction so I can concentrate on the car.”
A busy offseason with sponsor appearances and celebrations as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion was also a change for Rossi.
“It was the first offseason when I never stopped,” he said.
The pace also helped him appreciate what he had accomplished, and firmly changed his focus from Europe to the United States.
“It was special to be recognized among the icons of racing that have been woven into the fabric of America motorsports,” he said.
So far in 2017, Rossi has had an up and down season. Engine woes took him out of the season-opening Long Beach Grand Prix while he was running second. At Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, he recovered from a poor qualifying effort and passed 13 cars to finish fifth. He currently sits ninth in IndyCar championship points and knows he could jump up in the standings with a good showing in the Indy 500, which pays double championship.
“We are miles from where we were at this time last year,” Rossi said, adding that, in short, he “figured it out.”
Pirelli Cup At Sonoma this weekend
The season’s first weekend of competition at Sonoma Raceway will feature the all-Porsche series, the Pirelli GT3 Cup. This is the series’ second of eight race weekends, with the second and third events set for Saturday and Sunday. Sonoma Raceway-based Flying Lizard Motorsports will look for a home track advantage, fielding four cars in two classes.
The team includes a 997 GT3 driven by newcomer Eddie Arrowsmith, a veteran of vintage racing; and Cayman GT4 Clubsports for drivers Thomas Meyerhoffer, Martin Brauns and Napa Valley resident Paul Camusi.