By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 produced one of its most stunning results when Alexander Rossi, a 24-year-old former Formula One driver with only one other oval appearance, moved into first place without knowing if he would be able to reach the Yard of Bricks at the finish.
Running dangerously low on fuel, the result of the calculated risk of co-owner Bryan Herta, Rossi, in his sixth race with Andretti-Herta Autosport, listened to instructions that would quickly become Indianapolis lore. Rossi’s team elected to avoid a pit stop that the competition considered essential.
“I’m still on the last lap actually, with Bryan yelling at me,” Rossi remembered. “He is like, ‘Pull the clutch in and coast.’
“I’m like, ‘What? Okay.’”
The calculation, and Rossi’s skilled execution, allowed him to cross the finish line 4.4975 seconds ahead of teammate Carlos Munoz. Rossi became the 10th rookie to win the Indianapolis 500, the first since Helio Castroneves won the first of back-to-back victories in 2001. Rossi is the third winning rookie in the last 50 races, since Graham Hill won in 1966. He is the first American-born rookie winner since Louis Meyer in 1928. He is the seventh native Californian to win, which ties Indiana for the birthplace of the most champions.
The average winning speed was 166.634 miles per hour. There were 54 lead changes, second in the history of the race, 14 fewer than the record set in 2013.
After spending a disappointing year in Formula One last year, this is only Rossi’s second oval track appearance, with his first coming earlier this season at Phoenix.
“I don’t know about you guys – I’m shocked,” Herta said in a press conference as he sat with Rossi and Michael Andretti.
“I kept saying, ‘Wow,’” Andretti said.
The remarkable finish took place on the same 2.5-mile oval that had been the scene of too many disappointments for the Andretti family, starting with Mario, whose 1969 victory was an exception.
For Andretti Autosport, this year’s month of May has been has been one to remember. Rossi’s car, unlike those of his teammates, is co-owned by Andretti and Herta. The five-car team had three cars qualify in the top five with Ryan Hunter-Reay starting third, Townsend Bell fourth, and Munoz qualifying fifth. Rossi and Marco Andretti started in the top 15 with Rossi qualifying 11th and Andretti qualifying 14th.
Hunter-Reay became a major factor in the early stages of the race, leading 15 times for 52 laps. Hunter-Reay and pole sitter James Hinchcliffe, who would finish seventh, exchanged the lead 13 times within the first 27 laps.
Debris on the track forced the first yellow flag on Lap 47. After six laps under yellow and a quick pit stop, Hunter-Reay would hold the lead for the next four laps. Townsend Bell, Hunter-Reay’s teammate, would then make his presence felt. Bell and Hunter-Reay proceeded to swap the lead with each other and Hinchcliffe for almost 20 laps.
The first wreck of the day happened when defending 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his car coming out of Turn 2 on Lap 64. Montoya’s frustrating month was capped off as he would not be able to return to the race.
Throughout the first 100 laps, the lead changed 32 times. Nine drivers held the lead for some time, but it was Hunter-Reay who led all drivers as he led 44 of the first 100 laps.
Sage Karam’s day came to an end on Lap 94 as he made contact with the back of Bell’s car and lost control, hitting the wall in Turn 2. Twelve laps after the green flag waved again. Mikhail Aleshin and Noblesville native Conor Daly collided when Aleshin lost control of his car coming out of Turn 2. Daly finished the race 29th. Despite trying to make a return to the track late in the race, Aleshin finished the day in 27th place.
Chaos would strike for Andretti Autosport during the round of pit stops following the Aleshin-Daly wreck. Bell led going into the wreck and looked to stay out on top with a quick pit stop. On Lap 117, Bell came out of his pit box a little too quickly and clipped the back of Castroneves’ car, causing his own car to turn left and hit Hunter-Reay’s, who was still in his pit box. After having two of the fastest cars on the track through half of the race, Bell and Hunter-Reay would go down a lap due to the incident, ultimately ending their days.
“At the start of the race, it looked really good,” Michael Andretti said. “Ryan and Townsend were running really good up front. We thought they were going to be the guys to beat in the end. Unfortunately they had their problem in the pits there, which I could not believe. At that point I thought our day might have been over for a shot at winning.”
While the wreck ended any hope of the two Andretti Autosport cars chance of a win, another Andretti car was having success due to the wreck. On Lap 102 Rossi was sitting in 30th. He found his way to 21st when the wreck on Lap 115 happened and after the round of pit stops that ensued, Rossi rose to second.
Rossi led his first lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Lap 122 but was passed by Alex Tagliani. Seven laps later Rossi would regain the lead and was able to hold it until Castroneves passed him nine laps later.
With Bell and Hunter-Reay a lap down and Andretti having his issues with his car, it was up to Rossi and Munoz. Munoz had a top-10 car all day, and after going through his early struggles, Rossi maintained a spot in the top 15 for the final 50 laps.
On Lap 163, Takuma Sato lost control of his car on the front stretch and hit the wall resulting in the sixth yellow flag of the day. A lap later, Rossi, along with the most of the field, came in for gas and tires. With only 36 laps left, it would be the second-to-last pit stop for many of the cars in the field. Rossi came out after the pit stops in 10th place.
The remaining 30 laps became a battle between Josef Newgarden and Munoz. It also became a battle of who would best conserve their fuel for one final push. While Munoz and Newgarden battled for first, Rossi methodically made his way through the field.
With 10 laps to go, the remaining cars in the field began to make their pit stops to top off their fuel. Newgarden came into top off his fuel on Lap 195 while Munoz came in on Lap 196. This pushed Rossi up to first with five laps to go.
The strategy was working. Rossi held a 13-second lead over Munoz as the white flag waved. With almost no gas left in the tank and coasting to the finish line, Rossi’s final lap average was 179.784. The final lap speed for Munoz was 218.789.
“After that last pit stop, I knew that Alex was going to try it,” Andretti said. “We knew then, ‘All right, if he’s going to try it, we’re going to try different strategies.’ It really worked out. We had two cars that had a shot at winning with two different strategies.”
For Munoz, the second-place finish marked the second time in four years that he has finished just short of having his face engrained on the Borg-Warner trophy. He finished second in 2013 and if it wasn’t for Rossi’s fuel strategy, he could have become the 2016 champion.
“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel,” Munoz said. “I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did.”
Finishing with the top two cars in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 caps off what has been an incredible month for Andretti Autosport. On Friday, rookie driver Dean Stoneman won the closest race in Speedway history in the Mazda Freedom 100.
“This meant so much to us and to start it on Friday with Dean with this race that we’ve been trying to win for nine years, it was a good feeling,” Andretti said. “And then today to have that one-two finish, I just keep saying ‘Wow.’ It still hasn’t sunk in.”