NEW YORK — The idea of running out of gas doesn’t faze Alexander Rossi. In fact, it’s the reason he won a nail-biter at the famed Indianapolis 500 last year.
The 25-year-old California native, who was a rookie IndyCar driver in 2016 and won the 100th running of the legendary race, recalls that his tank was “past the ‘E’ — off the scale” but the momentum of traveling more than 200 miles an hour brought his car across the line first.
“With two laps to go, we had 0.65 gallons left in the tank, which is barely enough to make one lap,” he said. “And literally, the engine shut off — the car died — but because we were going 200 miles per hour, you can roll for quite a while and we crossed the finish line.”
Although Rossi doesn’t see himself repeating that feat on Sunday, he does believe he’s got a good chance of defending his title.
“My chances are as good as anyone else’s,” he said. “In a lot of races, you can tell halfway through who’s going to win, but because this is so long and there’s so much strategy, you don’t know who’s going to win until you come out of the last corner on the last lap.”
At least he’ll be in a good position at the start. Because he performed so well in the qualifying rounds last weekend, Rossi earned a spot among the coveted front 33. He’ll be joined by Scott Dixon, the 2008 champion, who will be on the pole. Rossi believes Dixon, whom he called Superman, will provide the strongest competition.
He also plans on keeping an eye on Helio Castroneves, who he said is “pretty hungry, but there are 10 or 12 guys who have a legitimate chance.”
Regarding his own chances, Rossi said he “has a fast car, and in the beginning we’ll be in the front if everything goes according to plan,” but it’s a long, grueling day and how it’ll end is anybody’s bet. And Rossi can only concentrate on himself.
“One thing that’s different this year is that there will be less nervous anticipation,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I never even went to the race before and everything was super new. I was very wide eyed whereas now I know more what’s going on.”
And he’s also not flying under the radar anymore. As the defending champ, the pressure is on. But Rossi takes it in stride.
“Whether it’s my first race or now my second, you go in with the same desire to win. I’m a competitive person so the pressure I put on myself is the same regardless. Sure, there are more eyeballs on me now, but that’s a super-positive thing for the team. And you have to re-prove yourself every time.”
He’s also become more in demand off the track. Last year as a rookie, his pre-race media requirements found him visiting the Louisville Zoo. This year, he was ferried around the Big Apple.
He’s also picked up some high-profile partners, including Tag Heuer. During the racing season, which runs from February through September, Rossi concentrates on his performance behind the wheel and spends his limited time away from the track resting at home.
“I moved back to Indy in March and I’ve been to the grocery store twice,” he said. “That tells you how often I’m home.”
In the off-season, he goes back to California and works on building the Alexander Rossi brand. “My goal is to be successful enough in racing to carry the brand beyond that.”
His number-one focus, he said, is to “do a good job in the race car,” which will hopefully lead to more corporate partnerships and deals.
He met the Tag Heuer team after his win last year and became an ambassador a few months later. The watch company is the official timekeeper of the race and has created two special-edition models for this year’s edition. Rossi proudly sports the winner’s watch he won last year while peeking at the newest iteration he hopes to take home on Sunday.
As far as his personal style, he said he’s a fan of Rag & Bone, Vince and Pal Zileri for those “two to four times a year” he winds up at dressy events. Outside of that, he’s most often seen in his Andretti Autoports jumpsuit, which is de rigeur for his career choice.
He joked that he has tried his hand at hockey and baseball, “and throwing a ball into a garbage can, and all three of those things suggest that ball sports is not my thing. I wanted to be a skier growing up, but I pretty much committed to racing.”
And since the life span of a professional race car driver is long, he doesn’t expect to hang up his fire suit anytime soon.
No surprise since Rossi has been racing since he was 11 — with go-karts as his vehicle of choice at that time. He was a Formula BMW World Champion and became the youngest driver at 18 to hold a Formula 1 Super License.
But for now, he’s focused on Indy racing and staying in tip-top shape to perform his best.
“There’s not a set path to getting to the top level,” said the tall and lean Rossi. “And there’s no set methodology. It’s just finding what works for you and gives you the most confidence when you drive. For some guys, it’s cardio, for others, it’s working on reactions and flexibility. My programming is based more on Crossfit. But during the month of May, we practice from noon to 6 p.m., so you have to go into the month with fitness that you’re happy with.”
He said the Indy 500 track is not as hard as some of the others he’s driven, but the race is three-and-a-half hours long and it’s historically muggy, so it takes “mental focus” as well. “It’s pretty easy to make a mistake at 230 mph and you can’t be doing that.”