Alexander Rossi hasn’t forgotten his first competitive race at Sonoma Raceway, 16 years ago on the karting track in an arrive-and-drive event. It was a monumental moment in his racing life.
“That’s what sold my parents,” Rossi said. “I didn’t come from a racing family, so they didn’t really know what I was getting involved with. If I was going to be committed, good or whatever.”
The Nevada City native made sure there wasn’t any doubt after his inaugural Wine Country performance at 10 years old.
“When we qualified first and finished second on that first attempt, I guess they were kind of like, ‘I guess we should give the kid a shot at it.’ ”
The career that sprang from that opportunity has included winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 during his 2016 rookie year (the first American to do it in his first campaign since 1928), a Formula BMW world title in Mexico in 2008 and now a chance to become a champion in one of the biggest levels of racing in the U.S. at the final IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday.
Rossi trails points leader Scott Dixon by 29 points, but has the same amount of wins (3) as Dixon, third place’s Will Power and fourth-place contender and defending champion Josef Newgarden. Rossi has won at Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Pocono this season.
Sonoma Raceway provides one of the most challenging and technical courses on the circuit. Passing is infrequent and track position is paramount. Rossi finished fifth at the road course in 2016, but a blown motor ruined his day last year and led to a 21st-place finish.
“It’s a very low-grip track,” Rossi said. “You’re constantly sliding around and fighting the tires and trying to keep the grip underneath you, which makes it so difficult to pass.”
The championship contender did make the point that IndyCar hasn’t raced the new car introduced to the series this year at Sonoma yet. The new Dallara IR-12 chassis has worked out well for Rossi so far.
“The car this year has less downforce, which means it’s slightly faster in a straight line and slightly slower in the corners,” he said. “I think the big difference we’ve seen is there is not a difference in the manufacturer dynamics. Last year’s Chevrolet and Honda (teams) would come up with their own aero package. And there were some advantages and disadvantages that we as a Honda team would have. Now that that’s gone, it’s really leveled the playing field.”
The pressure of this weekend’s moment doesn’t appear to have hit Rossi. Likely because the season has still been his most successful IndyCar season yet, but also because he’s been in this position before.
“There’s pressure to win every single race,” Rossi said. “That doesn’t really change regardless of the situation you’re in.”
Rossi’s dad, Pete, said the 2008 title had a much more important bearing on his son’s career. And was a much more painstaking race to watch.
“There was so much more on the line that weekend,” Pete said. “It was his whole junior career. That was the difference between him getting a Formula 1 opportunity or not. Alexander already has a long-term contract whether or not he finishes this race first or second.”