Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi signs autographs through the fence in the pit area during a practice session Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Associated Press)
Thursday, May 18, 2017 1:00 am
Year 2 crazier for champ
Rossi popular man at Indy as he triesto repeat rookie feat
JIM JOHNSON | Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS – It's become normal these days for Alexander Rossi. As he stood in his pit, fans gathered nearby just hoping to catch a glimpse of the defending Indianapolis 500 champion.
Crowds following race winners isn't an unusual sight during May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What's unusual is such interest in a driver making just his second trip to Indy.
There is no avoiding it, though. This is life as Rossi knows it now as a member of the winner's club. And when he crossed the yard of bricks a year ago and became just the ninth rookie to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Rossi's life changed in ways he never could have imagined.
“It's an amazing experience that happens for the year afterward,” Rossi said. “I had no idea that it's as detailed and involved as it actually is.”
It started when the winner's wreath was put around his neck and then seemingly nonstop appearances from coast to coast. The Chicago Blackhawks game in March, the first pitch at Wrigley Field this month and dozens of other requests and promotional obligations over the past 12 months.
But nobody knew who Rossi was when he came to Indianapolis in 2016 as an overlooked rookie driver for Michael Andretti. Now everyone knows his name, and the American driver is back for another try.
“I think the main differences are just knowing what areas are super important to execute and to get right these weeks leading up to the race,” Rossi said. “Before, it was just about trying to learn everything that goes into it off-track experiences as well.”
The off-track responsibilities for Rossi are much different from those of most other second-year drivers.
Even prior to climbing in his car on the third day practice Wednesday, Rossi carved out enough time to pose for a picture with a group of Indianapolis Colts rookies touring the speedway.
It's the same for every Indy 500 winner in the modern era. Ryan Hunter-Reay, a teammate of Rossi, lived it, too, after he finally won it three years ago.
“This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, race in the world,” Hunter-Reay said. “When you win it, it feels that way, and it changes your life. Then the years when you come very close to it, it hurts even more, like last year. Everything has to come together on race day.”
Somehow it came together for Rossi last May when he squeaked by with just enough fuel to edge Carlos Munoz in the 100th running of the famous race.
If one thing is more inevitable than a new life after winning at Indy, it's the urge to do it again.
“I think every year that I come back here I want it more and more,” Hunter-Reay said. “That makes you even more focused to come back and to get it done.
“So it's something that all of us think about all year long, every day, is coming back here and making a run at the Indy 500.”
Rossi likes his chances going into qualifying this weekend and the race set for May 28. Last year's win told him a lot.
“It gives you that desire to do it again because you don't really want to give it up,” Rossi said. “So I'm definitely going into this with the goal of trying to do it again. I know what I had last year, I know what I'd like to be different, and I have a better general understanding of everything.”