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Alexander Rossi remains highly motivated in IndyCar entering 2020

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

Stephen King

There’s a reason why Alexander Rossi rapidly has become one of IndyCar’s very best drivers.

He perpetually is motivated.

“The motivation is there until I can win every single race, which will never happen,” Rossi said. “I’ll never be short on motivation. That is what gets me out of bed each day, knowing there are people trying harder, pushing harder, training harder to beat me.

“The competitive nature of myself and the personality that I am, I want to beat them worse than they beat me.

“That is what drives me regardless of whether it was a good year, bad year, indifferent year. You are only as good as your last race.

“Every race weekend, every time you are in a race car is a new opportunity and time you have to prove yourself. As long as that mentality doesn’t change for me, the motivation will always be there.”

The Andretti Autosport driver is one of the most exciting drivers in racing. He competes with a fearless and aggressive style. But he is also one of the most cerebral and thought-provoking competitors in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock.

As he begins his fifth season in the series in the March 15 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Rossi is determined to finally get the NTT IndyCar Series championship. He has come close the past two seasons, only to falter at the end.

IndyCar Content Day

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

Getty Images

“Last year was better than 2018, which was better than 2017, which was better than 2016 so we are going up,” Rossi explained. “We did everything right in a lot of ways last year. The speed of the car was there. Qualifying was good. There were a couple of races we had the car to win and didn’t and ultimately, that made the difference. You can’t finish second to the guy you are chasing in the points, and we did that three times.

“In 2018, that was a lot of our own doing. There were a lot of mistakes me and my team made that cost us the championship. Last year, the mistakes were pretty minimal, and the speed was good. Circumstances just didn’t allow that to happen.

“These things are hard to win. Races are hard to win. Podiums are hard to get. Poles are hard to get. Top fives are hard to get so championships are very, very challenging. It has eluded us the past couple of years. The team is the same. Continuity is the same. We have all the right tools going into this year. We will start again and hopefully be in a better position going into the season finale, which ultimately will make the difference.”

Rossi believes the team’s biggest weakness “by far” was on the short ovals in 2019. IndyCar adds another short oval to the schedule this season at Richmond Raceway for a Saturday night race on June 27.

The Northern California native already has that race in his laser-focused eyes.

“I am worried about Richmond, for sure,” Rossi said. “In 2018, we were very good on street courses, OK on road courses, good at superspeedways, bad at short ovals. In 2019, we were good at everything except short ovals.

“Our test plan is focused on short ovals. Our off-track development has been focused on short ovals. I haven’t been on track since all of these changes have been made. On paper, they all look good. In practicality, you don’t know until you get there. The important thing is to improve those, but not lose sight of the things you have. You don’t get anywhere if you get good on three short ovals, then you are garbage everywhere else.

“You have to understand you aren’t going to be perfect at every event. The focus this year has been the short ovals and of course, Indianapolis and getting a bit better there.”

Rossi believes his best race in 2019 came in the 103rd Indianapolis 500. It’s also a race he did not win.

His battle with ultimate winner Simon Pagenaud was one of the ages. Each driver was relentless in their pursuit, swapping leads in the closing laps. Pagenaud took the lead on the final lap and Rossi was set to regain the lead entering Turn 3 of the final lap. Pagenaud was able to break the draft, and that was enough to win the race by just .209-of-a-second.

103rd Indianapolis 500 - Carb Day

Photo by Clive Rose, Getty Images

Getty Images

“Indy is such a weird place,” Rossi said. “In 2016, I did not have the best car at all, and we won. In 2018 and 2019, we had the best car and couldn’t get it done. It’s a wild place.

“The saying, ‘The track chooses the winner,’ is very true. That is what makes the event so special. It’s why it means so much when we pull it off.

“You can have the best car; the best strategy and the best things fall your way, and you still don’t win. But that’s the Indy 500 and IndyCars.”

When Rossi won, it was by big margins. He won his second consecutive Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach by 20.236 seconds. He started on the pole and led 80 of 85 laps in the famed street race.

Rossi was even more dominant at Road America. He started second but took the lead entering Turn 1 of the first lap. He drove away from the field to win by a whopping 28.439 seconds.

When Rossi finished second, however, it was often by the narrowest of margins.

“I would say Indy was probably my best race,” Rossi said. “I wish I knew what we did at Road America, Long Beach and Pocono in 2018. It’s weird. There are days when it all clicks. We’re trying to quantify that and understand why those days go the way they do.

“We don’t seem to win races by seconds. It’s by big margins.”

Rossi’s rise to the top of IndyCar comes from a strong competitive attitude. He is one of five full-time drivers at Andretti Autosport. The team has an engineering alliance with a sixth entry at Meyer Shank Racing.

Of all the drivers on the team, Rossi’s fiercest rival is one of his most admired friends.

“I’ve said it since Day One, Ryan Hunter-Reay is one of the best race car drivers I’ve ever had to try and beat,” Rossi said. “He taught me 85 percent of what I know about oval racing. He is someone who every time we are on track, we push each other really hard.

“He says it and I’ll say it, but we each want to beat each other. His engineers and mine work together. We bounce ideas off each other. We talk through things. We work it out. We have a really good working relationship.

“None of what I’ve been able to do in my IndyCar career would have been possible without the 28 car (Hunter-Reay) and what he has contributed. I look forward to fighting him this year and hopefully, we’ll both be fighting for a championship.”

Rossi’s pursuit of a title is relentless. Although he has yet to capture the season championship, each disappointment has been put in his bank of desire.

He will attempt to cash it in this season.

“If anything, it makes it more desirable,” Rossi said of the championship setbacks. “I talked to Josef Newgarden and he appreciates the second championship much more than the first. I get that because I’ll appreciate my second Indianapolis 500 much more than the first. It’s one of those things once you get it done once, you have the subconscious road map how to accomplish it. Right now, that map is buffering. It’s not all the way there. In 2018, it was 85 percent. In 2019, it was 90 percent.

“Hopefully, we can take a 10 percent chunk this year and get it done. There are so many factors, and so many things that have to work out right for you. The pace has to be there. The team has to be on it. There can’t be mistakes. All of the stars have to align a little bit.

“If anything, the whole team is hungrier. There is zero complacency. The whole team is motivated to try to figure out how to get it done. But you don’t want to get caught in the trap of trying too hard. That’s a slippery slope.

“We are all happy with last year in terms of execution and performance. We will go into St. Pete with the similar mindset to carry on 2019.”

Rossi and Newgarden along with 19-year-old Colton Herta are becoming the faces of the IndyCar Series. At one time, Rossi’s path had taken to him to his dream, a ride in Formula One.

He discovered competing for Manor F1 came with limited joy, and by the end of 2015, he needed a new opportunity.

He found it at Andretti Autosport in IndyCar.

Rossi was locked on a path to Formula One. By circumstance, he ended up in IndyCar and has embraced the series as his home.

It’s a case of, “sometimes you have a plan, and sometimes the plan has you.’”

“One-hundred percent,” Rossi agreed. “I’m a big advocate that God has a bigger plan than all of us and what we know or don’t know. It’s cliché to say, but when one door closes, another one opens, and that applied to 2015 going into 2016.

“I feel very fortunate and blessed to have gotten that opportunity to get a career lifeline in some form. Somehow, we won the Indy 500 with that and here we are, going into year five. I’m grateful to Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta, who gave me the opportunity. To continue to drive for both of them in some capacity is very special.

“I hope we can accomplish a lot together in this next phase of my career.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500