Rossi defers to God for biggest career decision
You don’t need much analysis from me. Alexander Rossi drilled the field in this past weekend’s REV Group Grand Prix at Road America, finishing 28.4 seconds ahead of second-place Will Power. The win capped a 7-race stretch dating back to Long Beach, in which Rossi has won twice and finished second three times.
And let’s face it: the actual record probably doesn’t do Rossi’s recent performance justice. He was spun out on the opening lap at the Indianapolis GP and could have easily won at Indy, Texas and the first Detroit race. If you want to go a little further back and use the most recent 25 IndyCar races, Rossi has been on the podium 11 times, and finished in the top-5 16 times.
Of course, Rossi is making news off the track as well these days. As a pending free agent, the Nevada City, CA native is being linked to the mighty Team Penske; this despite the fact that Penske seems to not have an open seat at the moment and a driver lineup and recent series champions and/or Indianapolis 500 winners.
So where is Rossi headed for 2020 and beyond?
A good place to start in my opinion is the acknowledgment that Rossi has every imaginable trait one would associate with a Penske driver. Putting aside the on-track accomplishments, Rossi has the polish and presence that almost makes it seems as though he was bred in a laboratory somewhere to drive for The Captain.
Add all the above to the fact that Rossi has already moonlighted with Penske’s sports car team at Daytona and Sebring, and it does not take a genius to play matchmaker, presuming there is a seat at Team Penske (we’ll get to that).
One element of this that people have not in my opinion sufficiently explored is Rossi himself. And oddly I think a good place to shed light on the decision facing Rossi is his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay.
While not a direct parallel to Rossi, you might remember that during his championship run, the then-unsigned-for-2013 RHR spoke with Team Penske about a race seat before winding up back at Andretti Autosport.
The 2012 season was a breakout for Hunter-Reay, who had spent the previous decade on an American Championship Racing Odyssey of sorts driving for smaller, under-funded teams, without ever really finding a home. At the beginning of 2010, RHR signed with Andretti Autosport for the first five races with backing from Izod, and BIG-TIME cashed in. He won at Long Beach and after the Indianapolis 500 sat fifth in the series standings. Team and driver parlayed the strong start into backing for the rest of 2010.
DHL and Sun Drop joined in 2011 and Hunter-Reay entered that season presumably with the backing and security he had long desired. However, disaster struck that May as he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. And while a deal would be struck between DHL, AJ Foyt Enterprises, and Andretti Autosport to get Hunter-Reay in that year’s race, the public backlash of the Check Bump was not favorable for the Florida native.
Of course, everything changed in 2012 after Hunter-Reay won four races that summer en route to the series title. That surge drew the attention of one Roger Penske, who inquired about Hunter-Reay’s services for 2013 and beyond.
Now, what’s interesting about the Hunter-Reay situation from 2012 is that RHR presumably turned down Penske. "Andretti is definitely my home," Hunter-Reay said at the time. "I love the guys there, I love the group there. And my team on the (No.) 28 car is a tight-knit group, and that's rare in racing to have that cohesiveness.
"I certainly have the utmost respect for Roger Penske and the Penske organization, but there were never any negotiations between us."
Citing loyalty and a certain sense of security, the Floridian wanted to stay with Andretti Autosport, and didn’t even enter into the discussion game with Penske.
"Michael bent over backward to run me in the early days of 2010, and now that things are going well, it's because of an entire team effort…Racing is a people sport and when you've got everyone pushing the same direction and getting along, it's rare – and you need to hold onto that."
So, if one were to take RHR at face value, he cherished the security and loyalty Andretti, DHL and others had shown during the difficult times. And all indications are he was right to trust his instincts. Following a few extensions since, Hunter-Reay is under contract with Andretti through next season, marking a very successful 11-year partnership between team, driver and an incredibly loyal sponsor in DHL.
So what does this have to do with Rossi?
A lot, actually.
Like Hunter-Reay, Rossi is the top free agent; like Hunter-Reay, Rossi will presumably be choosing between Penske and Andretti; like Hunter-Reay, Rossi will have the interesting conundrum of whether to be a part of a three or four car armada or the top dog at Andretti; like Hunter-Reay, Andretti scooped up Rossi at a time he had few viable options, and like Hunter-Reay it was at Andretti Autosport that he broke out as a star driver.
And although his Odyssey was not specific to American Championship Racing like RHR, Rossi had numerous delays in arriving in the big-time (remember the Caterham stuff from F1?).
But most of all, the situation of Hunter-Reay establishes a precedent of spurning Penske to stay at Andretti as a viable career move. RHR has enjoyed a storybook decade with Andretti, and until the arrival of Rossi was the unquestioned top dog on a team capable of winning Indy 500s and championships. RHR is a perfect case study of what Rossi would potentially be leaving.
Of course, there is another side.
After a number of successful years at Andretti, Tony Kanaan flirted with joining Chip Ganassi Racing for 2009. Kanaan cited loyalty and the backing of longtime sponsor 7-Eleven and ultimately spurned Ganassi to stay with Andretti.
With the benefit of hindsight TK did not enjoy, one could argue that decision was a disaster. Kanaan won a mere one race in his next two seasons with Andretti Autosport before parting with the team in 2011. Meanwhile, Dario Franchitti went on a historic run in the No. 10 Ganassi car winning two Indianapolis 500s and three series titles in a five-year stretch.
Again, presuming he has a say in the matter, Rossi would want to be sure that Andretti Autosport is not headed for a downward spell a la 2009-2011.
As for Penske
While it’s obvious why Penske would want Rossi, Team Penske is a pretty crowded house at the moment. Furthermore, Penske seemed to indicate that Pagenaud would be back in the No. 22 car while meeting with the press after the Indianapolis 500:
Question: Following up on that Roger, can you say with certainty that Simon will be back with your team next year?
ROGER PENSKE: What do you think? Do you want to answer that question for me? Absolutely!
Now, one could parse words and suggest that “back with your team” does not necessarily mean “back with your IndyCar team.” Pagenaud could theoretically be moved to the sports car team and perhaps that rumor has some legs with Helio Castroneves rumored to be talking to Foyt about a ride next year. Although, I want to be clear, that such a scenario does seem to be a stretch.
That said, it would be somewhat unprecedented if Penske moved on from any of his current drivers given their recent successes.
But there is precedent for the unprecedented
"This has been the opportunity that we've had to bring him on board,” said Team Penske president Tim Cindric after the team signed Pagenaud in 2014. “If that meant changing to a four-car program, that's what we were prepared to do."
Translation: we’re willing to do something we’ve never done (remember Penske had never run four cars before signing Pagenaud) for the right driver.
In my opinion, there is no question Rossi is a generational talent. If Penske wants Rossi, which is not a crazy assumption, it’s hard to see him waiting for the next cycle of contracts.
My opinion: Whether it’s a fourth car or shifting his lineup around, The Captain would be willing to do something unprecedented to sign Rossi, as he did five years ago with Pagenaud.
Also, Penske, because he’s Penske, can write Rossi a check right now and figure out the rest later. While by no means a pauper, Michael Andretti’s M.O. tends to be getting the sponsorship package in place before signing the driver. So, theoretically, if Penske wants Rossi NOW, and Michael doesn’t have the sponsorship nailed down, Penske will get him.
One image that sticks with me was Rossi’s frustration last month after finishing second at Indianapolis. When asked immediately after the race what the difference was, Rossi offered a characteristically directly answer, “horsepower.”
Yes, he went on to qualify it, talking about the team, the great car, and in general trying to soften the blow of saying his car wasn’t good enough to beat Pagenaud. But the initial “horsepower”, was one word that could have said thousands.
While Rossi already has an Indy 500 win, he had just lost to Team Penske a second year in a row, when he arguably was the best driver in the race. While Andretti Autosport is obviously no slouch at Indianapolis, it is not Team Penske. Is Rossi thinking to himself that if he stays with Andretti Autosport, he will more often than not be conceding that “unfair advantage” Team Penske seems to have at the Brickyard, particularly Penske’s seemingly endless torment of the Andretti family at IMS?
Rossi as race drivers are prone to believe, has to think he can take down Power, Newgarden and Pagenaud in equal equipment.
My opinion: While Andretti Autosport is the second-best team in the history of the Indianapolis 500, they are NOT Penske. Rossi knows this.
Rossi defers to God
After his dominating win last Sunday, Rossi was asked point blank whether he knows what he is doing next year. The conversation went like this:
Q. Bearing in mind the Penskes finished half a minute behind you, does that weigh into your consideration where you want to drive next year?
Publicly, Rossi seems to be leaving his future in the fate of a higher power. However, presuming some agency, young Rossi must weigh the fact a move to Penske means relinquishing much of what he has at Andretti. Sure, staying at Andretti could regrettably turn into a Tony Kanaan type move, but I’d say the long-term sample size would suggest a decade-long opportunity to win races, championships and Indianapolis 500s.
For me, if all things are equal financially, Rossi stays with NAPA, Honda and Andretti, and becomes the face of Andretti Autosport for the next decade a la RHR. But when you’re talking about the opportunity to join Team Penske not all things are equal.
As for who is God? Perhaps, Roger Penske does in fact hold the keys to Rossi's future. Or maybe, Rossi referencing a higher power was Rossi's way of saying he isn't sure how everything would shake out.
Whatever it was, or whoever God so happens to be, it seems we'll find out soon enough.
Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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