The firsts didn’t end for Alexander Rossi on May 29, 2016, the day he pulled off a shocking victory at the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in the IndyCar Series. The win on what Rossi then described as the “greatest day” of his life would instead mark the beginning of more firsts to come.
Take this past Monday, for example. Rossi the racer met Rossi the dog, a puppy named after the reigning Indy 500 champion.
“I’ve never had an animal named after me,” Rossi said. At least as far as he’s aware. Win the Indianapolis 500, apparently, and people start naming their animals after you.
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There have been other firsts too. Earlier this month, Rossi tossed the first pitch at a Cubs game, an opportunity that the racer admitted might not have had the same impact on him as it would on others. Rossi said he had never played baseball, or even attended a baseball game, before making his appearance at Wrigley Field.
But with this year’s Indy 500 coming up Sunday, Rossi will put a year of firsts in the rearview mirror and attempt to defend his crown. The fact that Rossi, who achieved a personal goal of reaching Formula One before signing with Andretti Autosport for 2016, faces such an opportunity in just his second appearance at the race is certainly unusual.
But Rossi’s approach to the race itself is also unusual.
“I don’t think that I’ve had the Indianapolis 500 as like a childhood dream since I was four or five years old, so there’s not that added pressure,” Rossi said. “Because it’s still a fairly new experience for me, I’m still learning about it every day that I’m at the speedway. And every time I’m in the car I’m learning something new, and each lap is still a little bit different for me.”
Even after the victory in 2016, Rossi said he doesn’t feel an excessive amount pressure going into this year’s edition of the race. The increased attention on the driver, however, is impossible not to feel. And Rossi said it’s a “super positive thing.”
Rossi said he is taking the same mindset into this year’s race as he did last year. And given the kinks of the Indy 500, Rossi said he will not enter the race expecting to win.
“I don’t think you go into any race expecting to win,” Rossi said. “You have that goal and that intention. But—especially the Indy 500 is a such a long race and it’s a very unpredictable event.”
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At last year’s race, things broke right for Rossi. After falling toward the back of the field early in the race, he used an atypical fuel strategy to come back and emerge with the stunning win at the 100th Indy 500. His car lagged to the finish line, averaging a speed a touch under 180 mph over the final lap, but a comfortable cushion allowed him to overcome a shortage of fuel late.
Now he will seek to repeat in part by taking the same approach and keeping himself from letting the pressure of the event get to him.
One thing’s for certain, though. This time around, the race itself will not be a first for Rossi. And if he finds himself showered with milk afterward in a victory celebration, it will not be a first, either.
“There won’t be that kind of nervous anticipation,” Rossi said of the buildup to the race this year. “Because I know what it’s about and how it will feel."