This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 29 issue. Subscribe today!
ON MAY 29, 2016, with a gigantic wreath collared around his neck and a bottle of milk poured down his throat, Alexander Rossi didn't really understand what was happening. He had just won the 100th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but throughout the postrace ceremonies, the rookie driver seemed disoriented, like he had just taken a wrong turn. More than a few Indy loyalists mistook his dazed expression for apathy.
"People then, and people now, they see the photos of me looking kind of spaced-out and they say, 'Why don't you look more excited? You just won the Indianapolis 500!'" the 25-year-old says today. "You have to understand that when I woke up that morning, that's not exactly where I expected to end the day. At no point during the race did I think I was going to win it. Then we did. There was a surrealness to it all that's hard to describe. My brain couldn't catch up to the moment."
Now, gearing up for the 101st Indy 500 on May 28, Rossi is plenty caught up to the idea of winning the planet's biggest auto race. More important, the sometimes-prickly IndyCar world is too. American motorsports fans, media and marketers have spent this spring spinning the story of the 2016 race as a Hollywood moment: an unknown racer winning his first 500 -- his first IndyCar victory of any kind -- in only his sixth career start by using an improbable fuel-saving strategy. He was the first rookie to take racing's most revered checkered flag since 2001 and only the fourth since 1927.
During those frantic first moments after his victory, veteran Tony Kanaan, the beloved 2013 Indy 500 champ, looked up at the pylon, saw Rossi's No. 98 at the top and shrugged. "I honestly don't know him very well, but I will be welcoming him into the club. It is the greatest club in the world. He has no idea how much his life is about to change. They might not have known who he was this morning. But they know now."
Despite the warm reception from Rossi's fellow drivers, the immediate response from those outside Gasoline Alley proved to be downright antagonistic. It had been the most magical month of May in decades, as the buildup to the 100th running was a just-right blend of the leather-helmeted heroes of the past and the living legends of the present. The perfect ending to that perfect celebration would have been a victory from, say, Helio Castroneves, who would have tied A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears with a fourth 500 win. Or perhaps a next-generation surname triumph from Graham Rahal, son of Bobby, or Marco Andretti, grandson of Mario. Or even a win for Roger Penske, celebrating his 50th anniversary as a team owner.
As those names fell back to the pack in the closing laps, Rossi, running one fewer pit stop than others, feathered his throttle and inherited the lead. The poet laureates of Indy's press box, those who covered Foyt and Mario and the Unsers, greeted the checkered flag with groans and slams of fists. "Anybody but this f---in' guy!" one scribe groused. "He doesn't even want to be here. He wants to be in f---in' Formula One."
"Yes, I did want to be in Formula One. That was my whole life's goal," Rossi admits. "But I need to emphasize the word 'did,' as in past tense."
He speaks of a childhood spent setting his alarm on Sunday mornings to rise and tune in to predawn F1 race telecasts -- a passion that led him to pack up and leave Northern California as a teenager to immerse himself in the cutthroat Formula road-racing farm system of Europe. Because of that F1-obsessed life, he knew little if anything about IndyCar or NASCAR. The very first time he visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was last spring, when he slid behind the wheel of an Andretti Autosport IndyCar for a test session, having landed on the team after a handful of F1 starts with backmarker Manor Racing. Rossi's first start on a true oval was on that same track, in the race that invented oval racing. Even he admits that the victory perhaps came too soon, certainly too soon for anyone to know anything about him. Naturally quiet, he had barely introduced himself to his fellow racers, let alone the circuit's die-hard fan base.
So the folks in the grandstands and in the media center drew their own conclusions, few of them accurate. "My favorite part is when people say he isn't even American," fellow IndyCar racer Josef Newgarden says.
With the name Newgarden, one might think he's a German engineer, born to drive the autobahn. But Newgarden hails from Nashville and instead cruises Old Hickory Boulevard. Likewise, Alexander Michael Rossi did not grow up on an Italian hillside overlooking the Ferrari factory. "I want to grab people," Newgarden says, "and tell them, 'Dude, he's from Sacramento.'"
"That to me has been the craziest, this idea that I'm not American and don't want to be here," Rossi says, his typically unflappable tone picking up a touch of irritation. He points to traditional assumptions about the motorsports world, that Europe is always cool to the idea of Americans on the Formula circuit and Indy is a virtual Ellis Island of racing, open to all and closed-minded toward none. He says his initial experiences in each world were quite the opposite. "I had chances to go back to Europe and I didn't. I honored the last year of my agreement with Manor, and now I've signed an extension here with Andretti. Here I am talking to you standing in my new place in Indianapolis. This is where I am now. This is home. My goal is to win races here and do it for a long time. If that disappoints some people, so be it."
The racer once perceived as an Indianapolis interloper is now rightfully touted by the media, marketers and masses as a star who can help deliver open-wheel racing to a new generation.
"For the rest of his life, he is no longer just 'Alexander Rossi,'" Mario Andretti says. "No, now he is 'Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi.' Everywhere he goes, his name now comes with those beautiful first three words. Those three words will open doors for him for as long as he lives."
For Rossi, the 101st Indianapolis 500 will be a far cry from the bewilderment of a year ago, when he arrived at the Brickyard unsure about even which gate to enter.
"I now understand what this place, this race and these people truly mean," he says. "And I think now they also understand me."