Despite being a full-time IndyCar driver with Andretti Autosport, Alexander Rossi doesn’t confine himself to open-wheel single seaters. Over the years he’s tried touring cars at Australia’s Bathurst 1000 and off-road trucks at the grueling Baja 1000, but he’s experimented the most in endurance racing. Rossi returns to the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona this weekend, hoping to secure his first victory in his fourth attempt at the taxing day-long event.
Rossi is in a strong position to conquer the Rolex 24. He drove three races in IMSA’s 2020 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship behind the wheel of Team Penske’s Acura ARX-05 alongside full-time drivers Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves, who won the 2020 championship. With Team Penske exiting IMSA, Rossi has followed Taylor, Castroneves, and the ARX-05 to Wayne Taylor Racing, which has won three of the past four Rolex 24s. The trio will be joined by 2018 winner Filipe Albuquerque as Wayne Taylor Racing seeks a third straight Daytona triumph.
After the Rolex 24, Rossi will prepare for the IndyCar season, due to start April 18th at Barber Motorsports Park. Rossi joined IndyCar in 2016 after five races with F1 backmarkers Manor Marussia.
“Getting back to a series where you had a shot at the top step of the podium every weekend was very exciting,” said Rossi in a phone interview. Sure enough, Rossi won in his rookie season at IndyCar’s pinnacle event, the Indy 500. He continued to show his talent over the following seasons, racking up six more wins and placing second and third in the series in 2018 and 2019, respectively. After a difficult 2020, Rossi will aim for a victory at the Rolex 24 to catapult him to success in the 2021 IndyCar championship.
The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
You got your first taste of Daytona in 2014 driving the DeltaWing. What were the challenges of driving that unorthodox car?
The car was a good idea: it was incredibly efficient, very easy on tires, and incredibly fast in a straight line, so for Le Mans or Daytona it had potential. Ultimately, it struggled with reliability and the cost of development was pretty high. The biggest challenge was braking. The front tires were almost like bicycle tires and they were right next to each other, so you had to run the brake bias about 75-80% rearward, whereas a normal race car is in the 55-60% range. So stopping and turning was quite difficult, but once you were on the banking and in a straight line it was pretty quick.
What do you do during endurance races when you’re not driving the car?
The 12 hour races aren’t that big of a deal. But with the 24, you do your stint, debrief with the engineers, and then you rest as much as possible. It’s easier said than done—it’s hard to take your eyes off of the iPad with the timing. But once you get into the early morning the most beneficial thing you can do is to sleep, whether it’s 30 minutes or an hour, because when you get back in the car at 3:00 in the morning, it’s pretty challenging.
You had some rotten luck in IndyCar in 2020, but you finished the season with four podiums in the last five races. Can you carry that momentum into 2021 or are you putting 2020 behind you and starting fresh?
We keep 2020 in the forefront of our minds all the time. It’s good motivation for myself and the whole organization. As you said, the last 30% of the year was pretty good and we found our stride again. We addressed some of our issues in the middle of the year and were able to see some short term results of that so I’m very encouraged about the direction of the team for this year.
Back in 2013, you said that you weren’t interested in IndyCar because of the risks of oval racing. Three years later, you took your first IndyCar win on an oval. What changed in your mind?
Nothing. I didn’t have any other option to race, so it was either get over it or stop racing (laughs). Now that I have firsthand experience, I love it. It’s higher-risk than road and street courses, there’s no getting around that. But ultimately how close and competitive it is outweighs the inherent risk that goes along with it.
You’ve talked on the Off Track podcast about getting your pilot’s license. Do you have any reservations about the risks of flying and do you approach risk taking in a plane differently than you do on track?
No to the first part. You can get killed or hurt driving a road car to the gym each day, so there’s no guarantees in life. There’s a lot of processes in aviation that you have to respect. I feel like as long as you do that you’re in a pretty good situation.
It’s a new thing for me so I’m a lot more risk averse in an airplane than in a car. I can handle pretty much all the situations that get thrown at me on the ground with four wheels, whereas I can maybe handle right now 15% of the situations in the air. I’m very much the best follower of rules, but I’m sure as time goes on I’ll explore the limits a little more.
You almost had your F1 debut twice in 2014, set to drive in Spa and Russia before both opportunities fell through. How frustrating was that stop/start process?
Spa was weird. To this day I don’t really know what happened. I was there as a reserve driver, and on the Thursday I got told, “You’re going to race this weekend.” I did all of the meetings and seat fits and media obligations. On Friday I got in the car for Free Practice 1 and everything was going as planned and then I got out and they were like, “You’re done, you’re not driving anymore.” I was like, “Okay, why?” They said, “Can’t tell you.” So I moved on.
With Russia, the only reason I was going to be in that car was because of Jules’ accident. That had happened the weekend before and it wasn’t a good environment for anyone. It was out of respect to the family to park that car, which I was ultimately very glad about.
After those two nonstarters how did you feel about your chances to race in F1?
There were actually two more that year, Austin and Abu Dhabi, but I won’t get into that. At the end of 2014 I was pretty over F1. I was looking to come to IndyCar in 2015. I had met with Michael Andretti and Dale Coyne and was close to a deal with Dale. Then I got a call from a GP2 team that I held in high regard and they had funding for me, so I gave Europe one more shot. I had my best year in GP2, finished second in the championship, and through all that was able to make my F1 debut and get the five starts that I did at the end of the year. As much as I would’ve loved to have a full season, I’m glad that I was able to make it to a race grid regardless of the circumstances. I don’t really have anything that I need to go back to Europe for.
Your debut in F1 finally came in Singapore. What was going through your mind on such a tight track, battling sweltering temperatures, and with no radio for much of the race?
I was fortunate, I had raced in Singapore and knew the track pretty well. There was a lot of excitement and nerves and anticipation that came with finally making my debut. Me and Will Stevens were driving a car that was a year behind so it was not even close to competitive. It was just a fight between him and I.
But it was an amazing experience and we finished far ahead of Will on that day. But having to deal with the radio going out—it was the beginning of the hybrid era for F1 and the cars were very complex. The drivers had to manage a lot of systems because it wasn’t as automated as it is now. They were actually putting codes for me on the signboard as I would go down the start/finish straight and I would have to try and remember what those codes meant and how to do what they were saying based on the 40-odd page steering wheel manual that I had read the days leading up to the race. It was pretty wild.
You’ve raced a lot outside of IndyCar. Are there any series left that you still want to try?
I’d love to do a Cup race, but it’s not on my radar at the moment. I’m very focused on the programs I have going on. And honestly, all of them are related to Honda so until Honda has a NASCAR team I’ll be staying with series that they have a presence in.
Will you try Bathurst or the Baja 1000 again?
I’ll definitely do Baja again this year. The only reason I didn’t last year was because the schedules got mixed around with COVID. Assuming that’s not the case this year, I’ll be back. And Bathurst, yes. It won’t be this year but it’s definitely on my agenda to go back and redeem myself.