Talking Cars With Indianapolis 500 Winner and IndyCar Rising Star Alexander Rossi
We sit down to discuss Rossi's early years behind the wheel, speeding tickets, and his amped-up Audi S8 and Ford Raptor.
Winning the Indianapolis 500 changes your life—period. There isn't another race in the world that modifies the course of a racer's personal and professional trajectory like the famous Indianapolis 500—not Monaco, not Isle of Man, and not even Le Mans. Its iconic oval is rich with history and tradition, with participants lauded as daredevils willing to risk it all for a taste of Indiana milk and immortality. No one knows this better than Alexander Rossi, driver for Andretti Autosport and winner of the 100th running of the Indy 500 in 2016.
That victory, along with his runner-up finish in the 2018 championship standings, made Rossi a household name in IndyCar and beyond. Not long before that, he was simply another young hopeful who was forced to pack his bags and leave Europe after not being able to seal the deal in Formula 1.
Following a dominant win at the Grand Prix of Long Beach in March, Rossi charged through May with a big boost of confidence—but also a heavy burden, the kind that only a former Indy 500 winner can feel. Will the racing gods smile upon his Honda machine and grant him the title of two-time winner, or will Lady Destiny alter another man's life in 2019?
Regardless of what's going on around him or the immense pressure he's under, Rossi remains a calm and collected figure on and off the track. The California native is slowly morphing into a mega-talent and role model that young karters want to follow, and it's not a stretch to say he's on his way to becoming the face of American open-wheel racing. And in many ways, a more relatable one too, since he doesn't originate from a millionaire, sponsor-rich family like Rahal or Andretti—even if he's employed by the latter.
We recently caught up with the 27-year-old at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where between green screen sessions and other media commitments, a down-to-earth Rossi took the time to sit down with us and chat about his early years behind the wheel, his sporadic-but-entertaining run-ins with the law, and his fleet of modified street cars, which currently include a 780-horsepower Audi A8 and a Ford F-150 Raptor on steroids.
The Drive: Your passion for cars—did it start with road cars and evolve into race cars, or was it the other way around?
Alexander Rossi: My passion for cars started around the same time—when I was 10 or 11 years old—and it was a sort of mix of the two. My dad is a Corvette fanatic, and when he got to the point in his life where he could afford one he bought a C5 in Florida and organized a cross-country trip that ended back at our home in Nevada City, California. Along the way, we made sure to stop by the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and that's when I realized that cars were something special. In a nutshell, my passion was ignited by that trip and by his passion for Corvettes. Shortly after that, I began karting and paying more attention to Formula 1, so that's when the racing side of things began to develop.
Around 10 or 11 is the prime age to develop a love for cars, but also a sense of self-expression. So what wall posters decorated your room?
Rossi: I immediately went home [after the trip] and hung up a Corvette poster in my room. I was a huge Chevy guy because we always had Chevy trucks. Later on, I developed an obsession with the McLaren F1 road car, so I had posters of Corvettes, Silverados and McLaren F1s (laughs).
When did you get behind the wheel of a road car for the first time?
Rossi: I must've been around 13 years old, and all I had experienced up until then were go-karts, and the throttle in go-karts is either full on or full off. My dad put me behind the wheel of his truck on our driveway and was going to let me drive around the neighborhood. I put the truck in gear and gave it gas like a go-kart. Needless to say, I was quickly removed from the driver's seat. The next time I drove a road car I was already enrolled in the Skip Barber Racing School, and by that time I was learning how to drive a stick on public roads in my grandfather's Mini Cooper.
Any memorable cars from your childhood?
Rossi: Not really. I didn't come from a family of huge means, so my dad's Corvette was a huge deal. It was truly his pride and joy. My mom was mainly a Jeep lady, so nothing memorable on that end, but I do remember getting dropped off at school in a Jeep Wrangler with a ragtop.
How old were you when you got your driver's license? Didn't you already have a racing license by then?
Rossi: I got my permit at 15-and-a-half and full license at 16. And yes, I did have a racing license before that, which made things a bit weird when I went to take my driving test. Here I am as a pimply teenager in mom's car because I didn't have my own, and when she asked me how much I had practiced I proceeded to tell her I was a race car driver! She didn't love that. She proceeded to be very critical for the rest of the test and even dinged me for speeding. It wasn't by a lot, but thankfully she let me pass.
Your dad owned a Corvette, Mom was into Jeeps, and you already had a racing license—your first car must've been something cool, no?
Rossi: It was actually a Chevy Silverado. It came off the fleet of my dad's landscaping business, so that's what I got. It was a former "manager truck" so it was pretty nice. It was a 1999 LS trim but it had leather, a V8, and Z71 package. I put 100,000 miles on that thing driving all over the place and going to a ton of kart races.
Did you get in trouble in that truck?
Rossi: No, I actually made it until I was 24 [years old] to get my first speeding ticket. Not that I shouldn't have gotten one before then, but it just didn't happen until then.
Speaking of speeding tickets, race car drivers tend to have good stories about those.
Rossi: Well, yes, but it didn't happen in the U.S. I was doing about 130 miles per hour in a Volvo S60 in Spain on my way to a test in France. Next thing I know a French police car is pulling me over, and shortly thereafter I'm being escorted to a local jail. There they told me I had to pay a 600-euro fine, plus they were going to take my license away and make sure that my trainer, who was in the car with me, drove me the rest of the way to our destination. Of course, I only had an American ATM card, and to make things worse it had a 200-euro daily limit. I tried to offer other things of monetary value to skip jail time, but they said no. Jail turned out to be more like an office and they were actually really nice, we even watched a couple of soccer games together while waiting for time to tick over so I could withdraw more cash. After I paid the fine they asked to take pictures with me and said it was cool that I was a racing driver. I wasn't too amused by that. The race car driver story certainly didn't do me any favors.
Has it ever?
Rossi: Once, when I was driving from here [Indianapolis] to Mid-Ohio in my Honda Pilot. I was doing 73 mph on a 65 when I got pulled over and asked for my documents. The cop eventually came back from his car and said: "I'm going to give you a warning as long as you promise to tell Graham Rahal that I also pulled you over." It turns out he had also pulled Graham, who at the time was driving a Porsche 911.
Now that we're on the subject of road cars, are they a "point-A-to-point-B" kind of thing for you or more than that?
Rossi: It's a little bit of both. I'm the type of person who won't buy a new car just because I'm cheap and the whole depreciation thing creeps me out. However, I typically tend to want the fastest thing possible that doesn't look like it [is the fastest thing possible]. I love the ultimate sleeper and I love big four-door sedans. Right now I have an Audi S8 that I bought from a buddy of mine a couple of years ago. Graham [Rahal] eventually convinced me to take it to his shop [Graham Rahal Performance] and we immediately put a full APR Stage 2 kit on it, full downpipes, intake, and the whole nine yards. Right now it makes 780 horsepower and 700 pound-feet of torque, but we're eventually trying to get it to 900 horsepower with RS7 turbos.
What about the Ford F-150 Raptor? We happened to be at Rahal's shop last year when it was being built, and later found out it ended up in your garage.
Rossi: [Laughs] I need to stop being friends with Graham [Rahal] because I was in his shop doing something to the Audi when I spotted the Raptor. A few months later, while flying back from the Portland race, he told me that his Raptor buyer had fallen through and asked if I was interested. I was kind of depressed because that race was disappointing, so I said screw it! It was such a good purchase and I absolutely love it. That truck is completely impractical and excessive in every way possible, but I love it.
So, off the track, is performance or comfort/luxury the priority?
Rossi: I think it's both, and it's cool because the best way to describe the acceleration and torque [in the S8] is like a freight train. It's almost like it's not supposed to do that, but it does, so it's cool. The truck gets seven miles per gallon but it's a great ride.
If you had to choose one, which one would it be?
Rossi: The Audi, only because it's so much easier to park. But if I'm not having to park anywhere, it's the Raptor.
What's your "I've made it" car?
Rossi: Mmmm...probably a [Porsche] GT3 RS. I'd get it with all the exorbitantly ridiculous stuff on it, wings, stickers, and stuff.
If money wasn't an issue, which car would you have in your garage by tomorrow?
Rossi: Aston Martin DB5, because at the end of the day there are two people in the entertainment industry known for their coolness, and they're both related to that car: James Bond and Steve McQueen.
To wrap up our interview we asked Rossi a series of rapid-fire questions just to see how quickly he could answer (not that we doubt he's fast), and also find out some rather interesting facts about the man behind the blue and yellow overalls.
Sedan or coupe: Sedan
Pickup truck or SUV: Truck
Weekend car or weekend motorcycle: Car
Dirt bike or sports bike: Dirt bike
Back seat or front seat: Front seat
Sunroof or convertible: Sunroof
Honda Civic Type R or Acura NSX: NSX
Ferrari or Lamborghini: Ferrari
Porsche or McLaren: Porsche
Mercedes-AMG or BMW M: AMG
Metallica or Tupac: Tupac
Indy 500 or IndyCar championship: Indy 500
Laguna Seca or COTA: Laguna Seca
F1 or Indycar: IndyCar
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