BY DEAN HOCKNEY
INDIANAPOLIS – Cars regularly race by fans in excess of 220 miles per hour during green flag laps of the Indianapolis 500. The historic 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was no exception as rookie Alexander Rossi turned in the fastest lap of the day on lap 106 at 225.288 mph. That is why it was such a shock when his last lap of the day came in at 179.784 mph – a lap that earned him the title of Indianapolis 500 champion.
Rossi took the white flag with fumes in the tank, and when he came out of turn four, he knew he was in trouble. But the American driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian had a large lead over the second place car of Carlos Munoz.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” said Rossi. “We ran out in turn four and we were clutching it and coasting down the back straight. Ryan (Hunter-Reay, a fellow Andretti teammate) was unbelievable in helping me get to the finish. He was giving me a tow at the end and it’s an amazing result for Andretti Autosport. I am just so thankful to do this on the 100th Running.”
While NASCAR is known for having races come down to fuel strategy, the Andretti teams showed it knew how to use the calculator as well. Rocket Rossi took the Sunoco checkered flag on the 36th lap after his final pit stop – the Honda engine fuel window was 32 laps. How close was he to being empty? He needed a splash of fuel from the safety crew to get to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under his own power. He then enjoyed the customary drink of milk as he imagined his face becoming the 100th on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
Rossi, 24, is a California native who now calls Indianapolis home. Last year, he raced in Formula One before coming to the Verizon IndyCar Series this season. He is now the 10th rookie to win the Indy 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001. He’s the first American rookie winner since Louis Meyer in 1928. Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911 when everyone in the field was a rookie, Graham Hill won the 50th race in 1966 as a rookie and now the 100th Running belongs to a rookie.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Rossi said. “In February, I wasn’t even thinking about IndyCar, and now we’ve just won the Indy 500. Thanks to an amazing group of people who gave me an opportunity to come here this year.”
Josef Newgarden finished third, 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan was fourth and Charlie Kimball was fifth in a race that treated the sold-out crowd to 54 lead changes, the second-most in “500” history behind the 2013 race, which had 68 lead changes.
Rossi’s car is co-owned by Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta. The win was Andretti’s fourth as an owner in the Indy 500, moving him to fourth all-time behind Roger Penske (16 wins), Lou Moore (five) and Chip Ganassi (five). Herta scored his second win as an owner, the first coming in 2011 with the late Dan Wheldon. In Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies for the 100th, Herta drove Wheldon’s winning Dallara/Honda.
“This is unbelievable,” Herta said. “Man, it was so close at the end. For a rookie to drive with the poise he did in such a tough situation (is something); I was telling him, ‘don’t let anyone pass you, but save fuel’ – and he did it.”
Munoz finished second for the second time in four outings at the Speedway.
“I was really disappointed when it comes to fuel and you lose the race because of that,” he said. “I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short, that’s what it took.”
Kanaan led 19 laps in his fourth-place effort and moved to second all-time in Indy 500s led with 12, one behind A.J. Foyt. Three-time champion Helio Castroneves, who finished 11th, led 24 laps to move into a tie for third with leads in 11 different races. Four-time champion Al Unser and 1969 champion Mario Andretti have also led in 11 different years.
Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2015 champion, finished 33rd after a Lap 64 crash. He became the third winner to finish 33rd the following year, along with Jimmy Bryan in 1959 and Johnny Rutherford in 1977.
The next event at IMS is the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational from June 16-19, featuring classic Indy cars, stock cars, sports cars and more on the oval and 2.439-mile IMS road course.
Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Simon Pagenaud 292, Scott Dixon 235, Helio Castroneves 224, Josef Newgarden 211, James Hinchcliffe 205, Alexander Rossi 203, Carlos Munoz 199, Tony Kanaan 192, Charlie Kimball 189, Juan Pablo Montoya 187.