INDIANAPOLIS -- Alexander Rossi was nearly gone. Out the door of Andretti Autosport and headed to the garage of a Honda-powered rival.
Just how close was he to signing with a new team?
“Very close,” Rossi told IndyStar in an exclusive interview this week. “We’re talking hours, I would say.”
If circumstances hadn’t unfolded the way they did Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park, Rossi said he’d be talking about the new team he was driving for next season and not the brand new two-year contract extension he officially signed with Andretti on Wednesday.
But when Rossi learned Andretti had secured handshake agreements with Honda and NAPA -- Rossi's primary sponsor -- on Saturday night, he “had no reason to leave.”
“I’m thrilled to be able to stay at Andretti and continue on with a group of people that frankly, I feel a part of the family and a part of the team," said the 25-year-old Indianapolis 500 winner, who would not reveal the other team he was negotiating with. “That’s a very unique situation for me to be in. Considering they gave me my shot in IndyCar and we won a 500 together, it makes a lot of sense from a professional and personal standpoint to stay where we are.”
Rossi’s decision put an end to months of speculation as to where he -- one of the most talented young drivers in IndyCar -- would be driving next season. He concedes it was a long road to wind up back where he started, but the coveted driver never let it bother him too much.
“I wouldn’t say the whole thing was stressful,” Rossi said, “It was just a unique situation because the current team I was with was still in a lot of ways preferred, but I didn’t know if I had the option to stay with them because of engine manufacturers, which is out of my control.”
To be clear, Rossi is not tethered to Honda exclusively as someone such as Takuma Sato is. Rossi can drive whichever engine he wants, but he has developed deep ties to the Honda camp and had no intention of severing them.
Rossi admitted that when rumors surfaced in June about Andretti's possible switch to Chevrolet, he was caught off guard. He had no intention of leaving Andretti but when he learned Michael Andretti and Co. had indeed been speaking with the rival manufacturer, he and his father/agent, Peter Rossi, began engaging other teams.
“There are a lot of things that need to happen for a race deal to come together and NAPA was one of them, but it was both," Rossi said. "I couldn’t have seen myself at Andretti had they been a Chevy-powered team.”
As the process dragged on, Rossi and his father grew pessimistic about a reunion and talks with rival Honda-powered teams heated up. Rossi said by the time series arrived in Pocono, he had nearly struck a deal to drive for one of them.
That's right around the time he got a call from Andretti saying that the team was sticking with Honda and that negotiations with NAPA were reaching their apex.
Andretti asked that Rossi wait just a little longer to make a decision, and Rossi agreed.
"Other teams weren’t sitting around and waiting for us,” Michael Andretti said of his highly sought-after driver. “Rossi was getting a lot of pressure (to make a decision). That was a problem. … This past weekend, it got a little crazy. Luckily at that point, we got the right decision from NAPA.
"I understood if he was going to have to take another deal, but fortunately he stuck with us.”
Once Andretti informed him Saturday night that he had reached agreements with Honda and NAPA -- on a 10-race, co-primary sponsorship deal -- his decision was pretty easy. While there is a part of him that was curious to see how he would have fared in a different environment, he is enthusiastic about the direction Andretti is headed. Rossi, whom Michael Andretti said is only scratching the surface of his talents, expects these next two years at Andretti to be filled with victories and championship contention.
“I can’t even explain to you the amount of positivity that we’ve experienced this year just from the way the dynamics work within the team,” Rossi said, citing key 2017 additions of technical director Eric Bretzman and engineer Jeremy Milless. “The perfect example is Toronto last year, we were four of the worst cars. This year, we (finished) 2,4 and 6. That’s a huge turnaround. Now we’re still not where we need to be. We only won the one race, Indianapolis. So there’s a lot of room for improvement, but there has been exponential growth from a results standpoint. I’m 100 percent happy with my decision.”
Follow IndyStar Motor Sports Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter and Instagram: @jimayello
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