INDIANAPOLIS — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Chris Owens/IndyCar photo —
For the first time in a decade and a half, a rookie has won the Indianapolis 500.
American rookie Alexander Rossi — who lost his Formula 1 ride with Manor Racing just weeks before the start of the season and was subsequently picked up for a full-time collaborative effort between Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti — stretched his fuel as far as it could go and ran out crossing the finish line to triumph in Sunday’s historic 100th running of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.
Rossi never led a lap in the first half of the event, but rose to the occasion when it mattered most, taking the lead for the first time on lap 122 and staying among the lead contenders for the rest of the afternoon.
Late in the race, as leader after leader had to peel off and grab a splash of fuel from the pit lane, the 24-year-old Nevada City, California native stayed the course — taking the lead from teammate Carlos Munoz with four laps to go and holding on for his maiden Verizon IndyCar Series win in the sport’s most historic and prestigious event.
He becomes the first rookie to win the race since Brazilian Helio Castroneves accomplished the feat in 2001, winning his first of three 500s.
Rossi said after climbing from his car that the draft he was able to pick up in the final laps from teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay were among the many keys to his stunning upset, which evoked memories of a similar stunner in 2011 when the late Dan Wheldon took Herta to victory lane by passing J.R. Hildebrand in the final corner.
“I can’t believe we did it!” the young rookie exclaimed. “I have no idea how everything came together for us to pull that off. We struggled a little bit on the pit stops today, but Bryan (Herta) came up with an unbelievable strategy. The car was fast in the beginning, and it was out front when it mattered.”
“I didn’t know (if we were going to make it). We knew it was going to be tight. Thankfully, Ryan helped give me a tow to the finish the last couple laps there and it was an amazing moment. It’s an unbelievable result as a whole for Andretti Autosport. All five cars have been strong all month, and it showed again today. I’m driving for the best team in IndyCar right now, and this win is for all of them.”
The win was the second as an owner for Herta and the fourth for Andretti, who celebrates for the second time in the last three years after Hunter-Reay beat Helio Castroneves to win the 500 in 2014.
“Everything has to go right here (for a driver to win), and it went right for Alex today,” Herta said. “It was so close at the end (on fuel), and for a rookie to drive with the poise he did in such a tough situation; it’s amazing. I was telling him, ‘Don’t let anybody pass you, but save fuel,’ and he did it. We won again, and it’s all a tribute to Alex, the job he did, Michael Andretti and the whole team. We all worked so well together this month.”
“I want to thank DW (Dan Wheldon) too … the time we had here in 2011; we did it then and to do it again is unbelievable. All month I’ve been hoping one of (the team’s cars) would win — but I was hoping today it would be us — and it was.”
Andretti made it a sweep of the weekend, celebrating as the winning team owner in Friday’s Indy Lights Freedom 100 as well before adding another 500 victory Sunday.
“It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” the second-generation team owner and 1991 Indy car champion said of going back to victory lane at IMS. “I’m proud of Bryan. He did a great job with their strategy, obviously, and it paid off. To get a 1-2 finish in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, it’s pretty special.”