How A 24-Year-Old Rookie Crossed The Indy 500 Finish Line First

f you ever make it to the Indy 500, know that sunscreen is vital. It’s difficult to focus on recounting the race's 100th running while nursing a farmer’s tan. That said, the fact that I studied 33 cars drive 200 laps around an oval for hours without noticing my skin scorch is proof that its tagline, the “greatest spectacle in racing,” is no hyperbole. Anyone can become an ardent IndyCar fan, if the view is good enough.

A newcomer to professional racing, I sat in the grandstands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday among a capacity crowd that topped 400,000 by some estimates. The competition has long attracted the largest crowd of any single-day sporting event in the world. (Only the multi-day Olympic Games host more.) But this year, for the first time in history, the world’s highest-volume sports venue sold out its grandstands and infield. In other words, Speedway, Ind. became, for one shining day, America’s 47th largest city, the spectators representing a significant chunk of the U.S. population. (The sellout prompted the event's first local televised broadcast since 1950. The race had been blacked out in Indiana to encourage ticket sales. No need for that this time around.)

Those with tickets in hand were not disappointed. As the miles to the finish line dwindled, I watched wide-eyed as frontrunners like Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgardenpulled into the pit one-by-one to refuel, adversely allowing those in the rear to slip ahead. That's how a 24-year-old rookie took first place in a stunning upset at the epic race that pits 33 of the world's best drivers on a 2.5-mile track for 500 miles.

 

"We decided to go off-strategy," Alexander Rossi told us reporters after the race. "We rolled the dice and played our hand. It was a very stressful four laps, having to hit a number that was 50% greater than I had ever heard before. I was like, 'Are you serious?' They were like, 'Yeah.'"

Rossi started in the middle of the grid and pulled ahead at the 196th lap, taking advantage of his rivals' refueling breaks. His efforts to conserve gas allowed him to drive the final 36 laps on a single tank of fuel. Rossi hit empty just after crossing the finish line, requiring a tow to get to the victory circle. We watched him rise from obscurity like a modern day Seabiscuit. At one point, he tumbled from the top 10 to 29th place. "It was an emotional roller coaster, to the point where I thought, halfway through, that I probably need to see a psychiatrist after this," he said.

Rossi’s Honda reached an average speed of 166 m.p.h. (Chevrolet and Honda provide the turbocharged V6 engines for the Indy 500 cars, while Firestone furnishes all of the tires.)

Rossi, by his own admission, began the race as a veritable underdog. "Walking out on the grid was awesome except for the fact that I don't think they said my name,” he said. “So I didn't wave to anyone. People must have thought, ‘Wow, he's not very cool.’"