Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo by Carolyn Meier
INDIANAPOLIS- The Indianapolis 500 has been creating auto racing surprises in 99 previous events. The much-anticipated 100th race provided a stunning upset with 24-year-old rookie Alexander Rossi winning as he ran out of fuel across the finish line and double checkered flags waving over his coasting machine.
Rossi’s Andretti Autosport team made a fuel-saving gamble in the final green flag stint which saw most of the race’s contenders pitting in the last 10 laps for splash-and-go fuel-only stops and opening the door for his surprising victory in Rossi’s first 500 attempt.
“I was sputtering out of (turn) four for sure, but I was afraid so I pulled in the clutch anyway. They were walking me through where P2 was,”Rossi said. “It was close obviously. Very close for comfort.”
The final 10 laps saw a shootout between expected contenders Carlos Munoz, one of Rossi’s teammates at Andretti Autosport and Josef Newgarden along with the final round of green flag stops.
Scott Dixon, 2008 500 champ, started the sequence of fuel top-offs as he pitted from the top-ten. Top-five runner and 2013 winner Tony Kanaan stopped with eight to go. They were followed by Oriol Servia, Simon Pagenaud, and James Hinchcliffe.
Newgarden and Munoz traded the lead until they made their stops with five and four laps to go respectively.
This put Rossi into the lead. He led Munoz by more than 13 seconds at the white flag. Rossi’s coasting car beat Munoz by only about 4.5 seconds.
Rossi restarted ninth when the final green flag waved with 33 to go and his team put their strategy into play. Outside fuel windows were estimated at 32 laps. Gambling another caution period would not come out; Rossi saved fuel and completed 36 laps on his last tank to cross the yard of bricks first.
Team owner Michael Andretti said, “Alex did an awesome job at saving fuel. To the point he was pulling the clutch in and coasting.”
Rossi said, “On the last lap, Bryan (Herta, team strategist) said ˜pull the clutch in and coast.’ I was like ˜WHAT?'”
A frustrated Munoz said, “I was really disappointed when it comes to fuel and you lose the race because of that. I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. That’s what it took.”
“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel. I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why is he not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” said Munoz.
Rossi’s car could not complete the cool down lap on momentum following his win and came to a rest in turn four. His car had to be towed to pit road and could then coast with a silent engine to victory lane but to thunderous cheers from the estimated 350,000 in attendance.
Charlie Kimball and Will Power also stretched their fuel mileage equal to Rossi and improved their finishes to fifth and tenth.
Newgarden finished third over Tony Kanaan, and Charlie Kimball. Sixth through tenth were JR Hildebrand, polesitter Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Sebastian Bourdais, and Power.
Rossi left his California home at age 16 for Europe with his goal being Formula 1. He won the BMW World Finals in 2008 which earned him a test with BMW Sauber. While racing in Europe he got involved with Team Lotus as a junior development driver and began to learn the F1 world. Rossi was largely considered the next American with a shot to get a Formula 1 ride.
He worked up to reserve driver status in 2014. Rossi met Andretti in 2015 and started talking about a future.
Rossi raced GP2 in 2015 which led to driving in five Grand Prixs last year. Plans did not materialize for him in F1 for 2016 but they did in Indycar and Andretti Autosport. The first oval he actually ever saw was Phoenix in February.
Earlier strong Indy 500 contenders fell by the wayside as the miles clicked off.
Juan Pablo Montoya, 2015 winner and victor in two of the three 500s he had competed in, spun and collided with the outside wall on lap 64 scattering debris behind him and causing the trailing cars to quickly weave through the parts and shrapnel.
“I went into (turn) two with a big push and when I got on the gas, it just came around,” Montoya said. “I just lost the car. The thing just snapped.”
Sage Karem suffered a hard crash into turn one with 93 laps complete. He and Townsend Bell went into the first turn side-by-side with Karem sliding up and impacting the SAFER barrier. The barrier was examined for damage and extended the caution period past the halfway mark.
Karem said, “We were just picking our way through and it looks like Josef (Newgarden) got checked up out of (turn) four and Townsend (Bell) went low. I went high, and thought I was going to be clear of Townsend and I had maybe a car length on him and I can’t blame anybody.”
With 114 laps complete, Mikhail Aleshin spun and crashed into the south chute wall. Conor Daly spun into the sliding Aleshin car. The resulting caution period pit stops greatly affected two of the race’s fastest cars.
Bell was released from his pit stall and his right front wheel made contact with Helio Castroneves in the outside pit lane. Bell spun back towards the inside pit wall and collected his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Both made repairs and continued. Hunter-Reay lost one lap while Bell lost two.
A group of cars had to make stops for necessary fuel top offs when the pits were closed and restarted at the rear of the pack
Castroneves suffered left rear wheel guard damage during the next short green stint from contact with Hildebrand.
Takuma Sato made contact with the turn four wall and bent his right front suspension with 161 laps complete. This caution period allowed Castroneves’ crew to make repairs to the body work.
The restart from the yellow set up the final sprint to the checkered as the teams were calculating their fuel mileage.
Rossi’s team strategist Bryan Herta said, “We were on a fuel plan. We were on this strategy. Townsend (Bell) dragged the 98 car (Rossi) around for a while. We were able to draft and save fuel. Then late in the race Ryan (Hunter-Reay) came around us and we able to draft off him and save fuel. You guys saw how close it was. Without our teammates, we don’t make it.”
Third-place finisher Newgarden said, “I wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out at the very end there.”
“The emotional roller coaster of this race is ridiculous,” said winner Rossi. “There were moments when I was really stoked. There were moments when I was heartbroken. There were moments when I was stoked again. Heartbroken again.”
“I’m going to have to see a psychiatrist after this.”
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7pm ET/ 4pm PT on www.racersreunionradio.com. Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat and @SpeedwayReport