INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Rookie Alexander Rossi rolled the dice on fuel and hit the jackpot winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, as IndyCar racing ushered in a new era with an American winner.
Rossi, who moved to IndyCar only this year after losing his seat with Formula One tailenders Manor Racing, found himself on top of the motorsports world after squeezing just enough fuel out of his Andretti Autosport Honda to win what is billed as the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.
The 24-year-old American, who had competed in just one oval race and had never raced at the Brickyard until this month, coasted across the finish line more than four seconds ahead of Andretti team mate Colombian Carlos Munoz, with American Josef Newgarden third.
Competing in just his sixth IndyCar race, Rossi had never led a lap until Sunday, his best finish a 10th at a road race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier in the month.
It marked the first win by a rookie since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000.
“It won’t sink in for a while. I don’t want it to,” Rossi told reporters. “I was sputtering out of turn four for sure.
“The emotional rollercoaster of this race is ridiculous.
“There were moments where I was stoked, moments where I were heartbroken, moments where I was stoked again. I need to see a psychiatrist after this.”
While the leaders dived into the pits with just under 10 laps left, Rossi and team owner Michael Andretti gambled he had enough fuel to make it to the end and moved into the lead.
It set up a nail-biting finish to the milestone 500 as Rossi nursed his car to the checkered flag and then glided to a stop and was towed into Victory Lane where he received the traditional quart of milk.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” offered a disbelieving Rossi, as he climbed out of his car. “I just can’t believe we’ve done this.
“I’m just so thankful to do this on the 100th running.
“I cherish the fact at one point we were 33rd. We rolled the dice and came through and made it happen.”
It was the victory many of the 400,000 motor racing fans had come to see.
The sunkissed sellout crowd, most of whom had arrived long before sunrise, stood and cheered through the final tense laps before erupting in wild celebration that rolled like thunder across the sprawling 2.5 mile (4.0 km) oval.
For much of the race it had appeared another driver in the Andretti stable, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, was headed back to Victory Lane running up front most of the day.
Late in the race Hunter-Reay and yet another Andretti team mate Townsend Bell were the two fastest cars on the track when Mikhail Aleshin spun into a wall, a crash that brought out the yellow flag and triggered a stampede into the pits.
In a rush to get back out in front, Bell and Hunter-Reay came together leaving both cars pointed nose first into the pit wall with minor damage, re-entering the race a lap down.
Out of the chaos Rossi emerged as a threat to steal a victory and seized his opportunity giving Michael Andretti his fourth Indy 500 victory and second in three years as an owner after failing to win the race as a driver in 16 attempts.
“He honestly had no idea,” said Andretti. “He never even saw an oval except for Phoenix before this. Impressive. Really impressive.
“I saw that he was very confident going into the race. I’m like, Hmm, ‘who knows, we’ll see’.
“He did a hell of a job. Kept his composure the whole race. Even when there were some problems, he still kept his head in the game.
“I’m not surprised, but it’s still amazing to be a rookie and to win this race.”
Editing by Andrew Both