By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — When Alexander Rossi pulled into victory lane following his upset win in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, he had no idea what he was supposed to do during the traditional celebration.
The 24-year-old American knew there was milk involved, but wasn’t sure what to do with the bottle. The wreath? He had no clue how to slide it over his firesuit.
“I knew to drink the milk, but I didn’t know how much to drink. I didn’t know if I was supposed to drink it all at once,” Rossi said Monday. “People have poured it, I was like, ‘I don’t really want to do that,’ but then I did it anyway. I had no idea what to do. I’ve never worn a wreath before, either, but I’ve got it down now. Left arm through.”
These were very good problems for Rossi.
The first rookie Indy champion since Helio Castroneves in 2001 — and the first American-born rookie to win since Louis Meyer in 1928 — Rossi stretched his final tank of gas the final 90 miles, four laps longer on one tank than any other driver did the entire race.
Asked Monday how he pulled it off, he said with a wry smile: “Skill.”
The win was worth $2,548,743 — including a $50,000 bonus for rookie of the year — from an overall purse of $13,273,253. And it was a surprise even to Rossi, who had raced on only one oval before Indianapolis, and had never attended an Indy 500 before Sunday’s historic race.
Rossi watched the 500 as a young racer in California — his first memory of “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” is Marco Andretti nearly winning as a rookie in 2006 — but he never had any plans to be a participant. His eye was always on Formula One, and he headed to Europe at age 16 to pursue his dream.
“It kind of forced me to grow up pretty quickly,” he said. “There was a very firm goal, and I just committed my life to making that happen. Now that the goal has changed a little bit, I’ve committed my life to trying to go win an IndyCar championship.”
When a full-time F1 ride failed to materialize this season, Rossi moved back to the United States to drive for Bryan Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. The team fields cars for Marco Andretti and 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay; a newcomer to racing in the U.S., Rossi is the least-known American on the team — and maybe even the entire series.
It makes him an anomaly of sorts for the Indy 500, where many hoped for another American winner but few knew anything about this one.
Rossi is very American, even though he spent the last eight years based in Europe.
Some other things to know about him:
—His favorite movie is “The Breakfast Club,” and his favorite television show is “The Blacklist.”
—He loves chicken wings, particularly from Indianapolis’ own Big Lug Canteen.
—He’s a New England Patriots fan.
—He listens to a variety of alternative rock, country music and Chris Brown.
—Rossi doesn’t eat carbs, but will make an exception for Jimmy Johns sandwiches and In-N-Out burgers.
—His favorite place in the world is Lake Tahoe.
—He grew up racing NASCAR star Kyle Larson and the two were rivals as children.
As for his preferred fashion? Well, Rossi can switch back and forth between a regular pair of jeans and the slim-fitting cut that Europeans prefer.
“Depends on the scenario and the girl that you’re going on a date with,” he said.
In many respects, the 6-foot-2 Rossi is very much a millennial. In others, he’s a hyper-focused race car driver who tolerates very little compromise or deviation from a strict regimen.
He’s had to make some changes this year as he’s adapted from F1 to IndyCar, mostly in his exercise routine. He works out seven days a week, but has switched from a focus on cardiovascular activities to more strength training.
The upshot is he can now eat chicken wings.
“For the past three years I’ve been very, very concerned about the weight that I am because in Formula One it’s hyper-critical,” he said. “Being 6-2, it’s a little bit difficult to manage that. In IndyCar, it doesn’t really matter … so that means I can eat what I want.”
Rossi called his Indy 500 victory the biggest win of his career, and likely the biggest he’ll ever have. He mentioned several times that it’s going to be a life-changing victory, and expanded on that Monday by saying it answered many questions about himself and his goals.
“There was huge question marks — rightly so — over me and IndyCar, and specifically oval racing, having absolutely zero background,” he said. “I think that this has kind of cemented the fact that, A: I don’t have an issue with it. B: I do enjoy it. C: I’ve fully committed to this program and being successful in IndyCar, and this is what I’m looking toward for the future.”
And there’s the $1 million question: Just what does the future hold for Rossi?
Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and was world champion in Formula One two years later. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indy 500 in 2000 and immediately made the leap to F1.
Rossi is still a reserve driver for the Manor F1 team. Should a seat come open on that team, he could be called on to race.
He also could try to position his win Sunday into a full-time return to F1. He was passed over by Gene Haas when he launched his North Carolina-based F1 team this year, but Haas could try to position more marketability in the future with an American driver and Indy 500 champion.
It’s not something Rossi wanted to discuss a day after his big win.
“What’s happening in the long-term, I don’t know, and I’m frankly not that interested at the moment,” he said. “I watched the Monaco race Sunday morning, and it was a great race. Then I forgot about it and moved on and went and drove in the Indy 500, and we came out with a win.
“For the time being, that’s all that matters to me, and I’m going to carry that forward.”