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The oval baptism of Alexander Rossi

100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Alexander Rossi driver of the Andretti Herta Autosport Dallara Honda leads a pack of cars on his way to winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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DALLAS - Alexander Rossi’s description of his first time around Indianapolis Motor Speedway is to the point.

“Scary as shit.”

When you’re maxing out at 243 mph before diving into the six-degree banking of Turn 1, any thoughts of reverence for 105 years of racing history are left in the pit stall.

That’s the reaction of a 24-year-old driver who had never competed on an oval, let alone a superspeedway, before this season.

Since the age of 10 in go-karts through the past eight years in Europe climbing the ranks to Formula One, the California native never found himself anywhere near an oval.

“I was never against the idea of oval racing, it was just very new to me,” Rossi said three days. “I just didn’t know where to begin.”

In February, when Rossi’s ride with Manor Marussia fell through (he remains a reserve driver), he entered a deal to drive the No. 98 for Andretti Herta Autosport just two weeks before the start of the IndyCar season.

“If you had asked me two weeks and one day (before) where I’d be racing, I would have said Formula One,” Rossi said Wednesday at an event to promote next weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Suddenly, races on five different oval configurations appeared on his schedule. Rossi’s oval indoctrination began in April at the 1-mile track of Phoenix International Raceway. Rossi started and finished 14th, the last car on the lead lap.

A month later, Rossi was part of a large test at Texas Motor Speedway, the 1.5-mile track that Eddie Gossage built and later dubbed “No Limits, Texas.” So far, it’s Rossi’s favorite oval.

“I was all good to be myself and just drive like a qualifying lap, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good.’” said Rossi, who got “a little taste” of race conditions during a coordinated group run near the day’s end.

“Then you get into a pack and people are going two or three wide. Then you’re like...'uhhh...I don’t know if I’m going to be doing that.’”

Rossi eventually overcame his self-imposed limits.

“But then again, you try it once and then you’re ‘ok, that worked. I guess I’ll try it again and it continues to work’,” Rossi said. “So it’s pretty fun.”

Then came Indianapolis, which was “a whole new level.” This coming from a man who set his sights on Formula One at the age of 10 for one simple reason.

“They were the fastest cars on earth. That was it. They were just faster than everything else. That’s all I cared about.”

The first few laps around IMS, his second time out in the superspeedway aerokit, was a surreal experience for Rossi.

“Your brain doesn’t really want to do it in the beginning,” said Rossi. “It’s difficult to describe. You kind of have to force yourself to do it in the beginning, to be flat-out the whole lap and to continue to be flat-out the whole lap and not just bail out. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but you get used to it. That transition was pretty cool when Monday afternoon, I got used to the fact that I was OK with being flat and I was OK to take a trim and start taking downforce off.

“That was a cool feeling, because I felt like I accomplished something.”

In the history of auto racing, every joke that could be made about racing on ovals, whether it be in IndyCar or NASCAR, has been told and will be told again by those who don’t know what’s going on in the cockpit.

The transition from road courses to ovals has proven challenging for many drivers, including Rossi. After two months, three tracks and one win, this is what the Formula One hopeful has taken away from his first steps into the oval discipline:

“To be fast you’re putting (the car) into a position where it really doesn’t want to do it. To be honest, when you’re watching it on board (camera), and for me I was the exact same, you look at it and as a racing driver you see it and you’re like, ‘well, that looks pretty manageable.’ But the differences on an oval, the feedback that you’re getting from the car and the sensations you’re getting from the car, are very minute and very, very specific. It’s the same thing with the behavior of the car. When you have a loose car on a road course, you’ll see drivers with opposite steering lock.

On an oval, loose is you go from here on the steering wheel to taking five degrees of steering lock out. But I can’t even explain to you that sensation. Like the rear of the car literally just had a huge wiggle. But you don’t see that in a steering trace, because everything is meant to go left, so you don’t see these huge corrections. If you see a huge correction, you’re in the wall. There’s no coming out of that. It’s a very similar feeling when you use the front. If you have one gust of wind at the wrong time you’ll literally be turned into the corner at 220 mph and the front will just give up, it will start moving up the track and you have to deal with that.

It’s the unpredictability of it and because the cars are so low on downforce the wind plays a huge difference, the track temperature plays a huge difference, so not one corner is the same, so every lap you’re on the tools in the car - bars and weight jackers and everything based on the wind socks, so you’re making decisions based on what you’re prediction of the wind is going to be in each corner. Then you add in 33 other cars and the turbulence of the air that creates and it’s just an incredibly difficult thing because the tolerances are just so much smaller than they are on road courses.”

It took two oval races for Alexander Rossi to get to the front. He led 14 laps and then won on the most famous oval in racing.

After two weeks in Indy, Rossi has begun to embrace the racing form he first explored two months ago.

That doesn’t change the fact that at the end of May, he was still peaking at 243 mph before that first historic corner.

Jokes Rossi, “I still question it.”

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