Tony Kanaan didn’t think his newly minted IndyCar competitor Alexander Rossi was shy, exactly. No, it wasn’t that, at all.
“I thought he was a fucking asshole,” Kanaan said. “Seriously, I was like, ‘Fuck you, Alex.’ He walked and acted so confident, I’ll give that to him, but I’m like, ‘What an asshole. He doesn’t care. Fuck him.’”
It’s four years later now, and Kanaan and Rossi, the veteran and the fifth-year driver, are great friends. There wasn’t one moment in particular that altered the trajectory of their once-icy relationship both off the track and on, where they crossed swords several times and had words later. It built slowly, both men showing up early in the morning at PitFit Training in Indianapolis, a fitness center that specializes in motorsports performance training. It was Kanaan who broke the ice, saying “Good morning” a number of times before Rossi finally replied with a pleasant “Good morning” of his own. But over the months and years, they found they had a lot in common, not the least of which is a love and appreciation for open-wheel racing.
“What I’ve found out over time is, he’s really a good guy,” Kanaan said. “Funnier than you would think.”
Rossi, 28, didn’t make all that great an initial impression on fellow driver James Hinchcliffe, either. And understand, Hinchcliffe is a hyper-social sort who likes everybody. They, too, are fast friends these days, co-imbibers in a bourbon-tasting club with Conor Daly and others. But it took some time.
“I’m not going to lie to you, my first impression was, ‘Man, this guy really doesn’t want to be here,’” Hinchcliffe said. “I think when he got here (from Formula One, where Rossi spent four years attempting to find his place), he saw IndyCar as a stopgap. I think he resented that. He’d race here for a year before everything in the F1 world righted itself and he got a shot. In his mind, it was a parallel step from F2 (Formula Two) and that’s not what he was looking for.”
Imagine, then, how the IndyCar world viewed his 2016 victory at the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. He had just joined (then named) Andretti Herta Autosport after seven years in Europe chasing his Formula One dream. He had never before driven on the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway track. It was only his second race ever on an oval, following February’s race at Phoenix, in which he started and finished 14th. He was like the transfer student who shows up and suddenly becomes the big man on campus. This wasn’t just the 500; it was the centennial at a sold-out IMS.
On that Memorial Day weekend, his AHA team owner and race strategist Bryan Herta threw a strategic Hail Mary, eschewing a late pit stop and then praying Rossi could somehow make it all the way to the end of the race with his fuel level dropping to “empty.”
“The amount of fuel he saved to win that race was biblical,” Hinchcliffe said.
But that’s the thing: In racing, if you’re the best driver with the best car, everybody celebrates your accomplishment. But Rossi, who maintained his cool even while twice losing significant track position due to pit-stop issues, won on fuel-mileage strategy, ultimately running out of fuel on the backstretch of the final lap and cruising to victory. Victory lap? Forget it. He had to get towed in.
The issue wasn’t the fact that this reserved rookie had won the most prestigious race in North America and possibly the world. The problem came afterward, when, in a state of relative shock and confusion, he showed minimal emotion and joy, failed to act properly reverential about the race and the iconic Speedway and generally behaved like it just wasn’t all that big a deal. Or at least that was the widely held perception.
We’re used to seeing Helio Castroneves climbing the fence near the start-finish line in the wake of his victories. We’re used to seeing Kanaan, who waited 12 years for his moment of Indy glory, emphatically throw his arms upward and spill out emotion after his victory in 2013. Rossi, a self-described introvert who had put his F1 dream on hold to drive in IndyCar in 2016, seemed annoyed by all the extracurricular hoopla – he calls it “fluff” — that attended his victory in front of a sold-out Speedway.
Now, sitting at a downtown Indianapolis bar enjoying a bourbon or two, he is trying to make sense of it all.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t care,” he says. “It wasn’t that at all. It’s just that I was in complete shock. I went into that race with no expectation of winning it. Never, at any point during that race, did I allow myself to think I was going to win. I was going to run out of fuel on the back straight, we’re going to finish 25th, this is going to be shitty, but oh well, it’s my first Indy 500. Even out of Turn 4 (on the final lap), I was out of gas, I was looking in my mirror waiting for the second-place car to go past me at 220 mph at any second. Then I crossed the line and I never processed it until Bryan (Herta) got to me (out on the track where his car had come to a standstill) and said, ‘You’ve just won the Indianapolis 500.’
“People misinterpreted my surprise as arrogance. It was the opposite of that. It was complete and utter humility, like, ‘I shouldn’t be here. How the hell did I get here?’”
Turned out, it was not a fluke or relative beginner’s luck. Rossi has gone on to become one of the faces of the IndyCar Series along with Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Will Power. He was the 2016 Rookie of the Year. In 67 IndyCar races, he’s earned seven victories, six poles and 19 podium finishes, failing to cross the finish line only four times. In 2018, just his third full IndyCar season, he took the championship fight to the final race but fell 57 points short of Dixon, and last season he finished third in the standings, 33 points behind Newgarden. When IndyCar begins anew – whenever that might be – he will be one of the favorites to win the title.
In recent years, Rossi has worked hard to grow his brand and the IndyCar brand. He did “The Amazing Race” with fellow driver Conor Daly. He co-hosts the “Off Track with Hinch and Rossi” podcast with Hinchcliffe. He posts social media updates on his race car, which he’s nicknamed “#BabyGirl.” His popularity, which was virtually nonexistent his rookie year, has grown exponentially. The guy who didn’t seem to get IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500 has, over time, become one of its best, if sometimes reluctant, spokesmen.