IndyCar, long lacking a U.S. hero, needs rookie Alexander Rossi to catapult to stardom

Rossi in Dallas Wednesday
Rossi in Dallas Wednesday

IRVING — For the moment, Alexander Rossi is Derrike Cope winning NASCAR's premiere event, the Daytona 500, in 1990 writes Gerry Fraley of the Dallas News.

That is, a one-off racing event of staggering proportions that was not to be repeated. Cope won one more Cup race in the next 21 years.

Rossi had his unexpected moment last Sunday, winning the Indianapolis 500 in only his sixth start in the Verizon IndyCar series. What Rossi does next could help the state of open-wheel racing in the United States.

Rossi could become the American driver-hero IndyCar needs.

"Having an American win the 500 is important," Rossi said Wednesday during a local visit.

NASCAR has monopolized the market on those guys, to its benefit. That is a major reason why NASCAR has rocketed past IndyCar in terms of popularity. IndyCar, created in 1996, has never had a larger-than-life figure such as the Texan A.J. Foyt, from a previous generation.

IndyCar had a chance when Tony Stewart and Sam Hornish Jr., both out of the Midwest, won championships. Each moved on to NASCAR.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, born in Dallas, had a chance with a title run in 2012 and a victory at Indianapolis in 2014, but he has not captured the interest of the fan base.

IndyCar features tremendous and charismatic drivers from around the globe. It figures that a series based in the U.S. needs a strong American presence.

That mantle falls upon Rossi by virtue of his victory at Indianapolis, the first by an American rookie since Louis Meyer in 1928.

Rossi, a 24-year-old Californian, could be at the forefront of a squadron of young, talented American drivers, a group that includes Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden. Rossi will be a centerpiece driver for the remainder of the season, including the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 11.

Q&A session with Rossi
Q&A session with Rossi

"There's a general perception that American drivers aren't at the same level as European drivers," Rossi said. "I don't understand that."

Rossi pointed to Newgarden's strong showing at Indianapolis. Newgarden had the better car but lost a fuel-mileage contest.

Hunter-Reay is as gifted as any racer in the world, Rossi said. He considers Hunter-Reay to be the benchmark for American racers.

"There are capable young guys who are the future of the sport," Rossi said. "It's very important for us to carry that forward. It's going to help IndyCar in the future."

Rossi is an unusual American racer in that he gained extensive experience in Europe before debuting in IndyCar.

Rossi returned home this year after racing overseas since 2009. In Europe, he moved up through the Formula One feeder series before getting a break as a test driver with the Caterham team in 2012-14. Rossi moved to the same role with the Manor Marussia operation in 2014.

He achieved his goal of racing in F1 with five starts last season but could not get a full-time ride for this year. That went to Indonesian rookie Rio Haryanto, who brought in big financial backing from his country's oil company.

Coming back to IndyCar presented more problems than going to Europe and F1, Rossi said.

"I felt more of a hurdle coming back," Rossi said. "I don't know why that is. I was welcome [in Europe] from Day 1, and some of my best friends in the world are there."

Manor approved of Rossi's switch to IndyCar this year but continues to list him as a reserve driver. Manor, or another team, could tempt the Indianapolis 500 winner with the offer of a full-time F1 ride for 2017. That would force the new face of American open-wheel racing into a tough decision. Gerry Fraley/Dallas news

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