It’s 1959 in New York City, and an energetic nine-year-old from Brooklyn decides he want to be a race car driver. But not just any racing driver. Of course, a Formula 1 driver. The boy goes to the local library to do hours of research, and then makes a formal presentation to his father to “go racing.” Dad scoffs, but the boy is not deterred. He stomps outside to vent to the neighborhood soda man, who as it seems, just bought a go-kart for his kid. And luckily...his kid hates it. Unbeknownst to his dad, the boy strikes a deal for that go-kart, and his days as a “racer" have come to fruition.
That NYC kid is Michael Gesser, a long-time (and likely the longest-running) sponsor of driver Alexander Rossi. Sponsor/Superfan is probably the best way to describe Michael most accurately. Michael is at nearly every IndyCar race, in pit lane with a headset, taking in all of the on-track action and stats on the screens. He often traveled across continents to watch Alexander’s races while he was making his way to F1.
“He’s more than just a sponsor,” says Alex. “We give him a hard time and roast him a lot , and that’s because he’s like family. He’s been through a lot with us. The entire journey of my career, really."
Needless to say, F1 aspirations for Gesser fizzled out rather quickly. He’s been all over the world and dabbled in many industries. After leaving New York at age 17, he traveled the globe for work and pleasure, spending time in Africa, Asia and Israel. During this time, he developed a love for good food and flavorful coffee, especially after living in Kenya for nearly five years. In 1974, Gesser came back from traveling in southeast Asia and ended up in Alaska to work on the Trans Alaska Pipeline. His dad approved of the paycheck, and Michael approved of the adventure.
The next chapter of Michael's life included “the boat business,” as he tells it. Boats landed him in Seattle and he would often frequent a little cafe owned by a spry Italian family. In the 90’s, during the pre-Starbucks days, Michael noticed there was a void in the coffee shop world and this intrigued him. Throughout the next year and a half, he toured the country doing ‘coffee research,’ learning how to buy coffee, about different processing systems, etc. From his travels in Africa, he had knowledge of their coffee industry and had visited every coffee-producing country in the world. Michael set out to specialize in single-estate varietal coffee beans.
What followed was Alaska Coffee Roasting, founded by Michael in 1993 with a flagship location in Fairbanks. As his website says, it's a company priority that each batch is tasted and approved before receiving their seal of approval. His coffee shops and products were a success. But he remained small on purpose, so he could focus on deliberate growth and good products.
As coffee got going, Michael went racing. He now had time to revisit his passion and raced as an adult in the Russell Racing Series and in Pro Mazda. In 2003, on a sunny day at Sonoma Raceway in central California, Michael met Pieter Rossi.
Through their shared love of the sport and education on good racing drivers, they became fast friends. Pieter invited Michael to come watch a new kid on the block…a 10-year-old karter named Alexander Rossi that everyone was chatting about.
“Alex has a certain quietness and calm resolve,” says Michael. “He has the ability to define the chaos around him and move it into proper amount of aggression on the track. It’s a special kind of focus and balance.”
He recognized Alex’s talent quickly and became his first sponsor. Mike encouraged the father-son duo to tackle Europe and follow Alex’s F1 dreams, just as he had dreamed of doing as a boy back in New York. The road to F1 is complicated, especially when you’re on that ride for seven years. Michael was with them during many exciting wins, pole positions in Monaco, and through the political struggles of (3) F1 teams.
“Michael is family,” said Pieter. “As Alex said, we roast Michael because we love him. Bottom line is, not too many people would have stood next to us (like Michael did) without one hesitation this past decade. Racing is difficult and relentless on a normal day. Michael never wavered, lost faith or sight of the goal. He’s the man!”
“It’s a delicate balance of who you can trust and rely on in F1. You must be very careful,” says Michael. “Pieter had the leadership, direction, and acumen for Alex’s career, and work ethic to get it done. He took a big load off Alex so he could just focus on being best athlete and driver on and off track.”
“While father and son, they work seamlessly together, and it’s very rare and special to watch the level of trust and respect they have for each other,” continued Michael."They both know they’re own roles and let each get on with it, so they operate at a very high level. It’s amazing to watch. They have the no-matter-what mentality, and never-never-never give up resolve.”
Alex grabbed a full-time INDYCAR ride with Andretti Autosport in February 2016 and moved back from Europe after seven years working his way to Formula 1. That May, he won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 as rookie, and was the first American rookie to win the Indy 500 since 1928. In his sophomore year (2017), Alex finished seventh overall in the Verizon IndyCar Series Championship, winning at the famous Watkins Glen circuit.
Michael’s coffee business has expanded to Miami, and he has a location in The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But he still wants to remain small so he can go to the races and support the Rossi’s. He has plans to venture into cold brew, and is researching coffee as a ‘sport beverage.’ He wants Alex to be a part of that expansion and the new products.
“Alexander is the real deal,” says Michael. “We have too many stories and too many words to explain all the challenges we’ve come up against over the years. One thing remains true through it all...Alexander’s talent and humility. It is going to be a great book and movie in the future.”
The little boy from New York who aspired to be a Formula 1 driver all those years ago, is now helping fulfill the dreams of a young man from Nevada City, CA.
“When all the parts come together, the artfulness of engineering and athleticism of a driver…then it is great. Have no doubts, I want to be a part of that.”
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