An unfamiliar driver, an American no less, ushered in a new era at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by outlasting his faster rivals — and his fuel tank.
Alexander Rossi was the stunning winner of the historic 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” on Sunday in a victory that allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their famed careers.
Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.
Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag and his Honda had to be towed to the victory celebration.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” Rossi said. “It’s an amazing result for Andretti Autosport.”
Rossi didn’t have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn’t have a chance to race his teammate for the victory — even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail’s pace of 179.784 mph.
The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after, particularly since it is his second runner-up finish in four years.
“For half a lap short of fuel … ,” he said. “I will win the 500 one day.”
Munoz has contended at Indy before and he’s proven to be fast at the speedway.
Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.
He’s an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One his entire career. Stuck without a ride, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.
Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win.
“I’ll cherish the fact that at one point we were 33rd,” Rossi said. “We rolled the dice and came through and made it happen. This is unbelievable. I have no doubt it’s going to change my life.”
Although he’s a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Bryan Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.
This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.
Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.
Even with those two eliminated from contention, Rossi still wasn’t a factor in this race.
As the laps wound down, it clearly became a fuel mileage race and American Josef Newgarden and Munoz both swapped the lead repeatedly. But both had to stop for gas, and Rossi moved into the lead. It was all his from there as he easily coasted to the finish line.
The win allowed team owner Michael Andretti to celebrate in the 100th running of a race that has tormented his family. Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.
“To get a 1-2 finish in the 100th running of the Indy 500 is pretty good,” Andretti said. “I’m just so happy for everyone on the team. We are just so happy.”
Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.
Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. It a tough defeat for Newgarden.
“If I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race,” Newgarden said. “It just sucks it didn’t play out the way we needed it to, fuel became a factor at the end. Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy.
“Those guys, to put it politely, weren’t as strong as us. They didn’t have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them.”
Hinchcliffe, the polesitter who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.
In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He’d been in Monaco this time last year, unsure of what his future held.
“I had no idea I’d be in IndyCar, I had no idea I’d be in the Indy 500,” said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history and will become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
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