Winning the World's Biggest Race without Any Gas in the Tank

·5 min read
Photo credit: Jamie Squire
Photo credit: Jamie Squire

Welcome to Split Second, where we ask racers to recall a split-second moment that's seared into their brain—the perfect pass, the slow-motion movie of their own worst crash, the near miss that scared them straight, or anything else—and what gives the memory staying power. In this edition, we spoke to IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi, who had the very unique experience of being the winner who crossed the line without the engine running in the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

Alexander Rossi was a passenger in his own race car. As it flew around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2016, he was out of fuel and rapidly decelerating as his competitors closed in on him. It was the last lap in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, and there, in front of 300,000 spectators, he felt helpless.

Rossi was in the lead but had no idea if he'd keep it. As he rolled through the final corners with only the momentum his car had before it sputtered and shut off, his Andretti Autosport teammate, Carlos Muñoz, was running him down with fuel to spare.

"There was no defense I could do," Rossi told Road & Track. "As I was coming toward the finish line, I was trying to, as much as I could, pull myself up—trying to look at the nose of the car to see where it would cross the bricks.

Photo credit: Jamie Squire
Photo credit: Jamie Squire

"I kept rotating between the nose of the car and the mirror to see where [Muñoz] was."

What happened next was cinematic. Rossi, who'd led by about half a lap before the white flag, won by only 4.5 seconds—a blink, in comparison. Rossi's car was towed to victory lane, and his last lap's speed had been 179.8 mph. Muñoz's was 218.8.

But Rossi hadn't just won the 100th Indy 500 or won it as an IndyCar rookie. He'd done both without the screech of his own race car in his ear. It would become one of the most special moments in his career.

"As a race-car driver, you never hear or know, really, that the crowd is there," Rossi said. "But because the engine was off, I heard 300,000 people erupt either in confusion, happiness, or horror.

"As I coasted from the yard of bricks on the start-finish line through Turn 1, that was the first time in a race car that I'd ever heard fans, let alone known the fans were celebrating or commiserating what I had just done. That's hard to repeat."

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire

Rossi didn't inherit the race lead for the final time until lap 197 of 200. He was fifth on lap 195, but everyone in front of him—Muñoz, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, and Oriol Servià—had to drop down pit road for a splash of gas. Newgarden was about two laps short.

Rossi stayed out. He had to make his tank last 36 laps to win.

"We were having problems refueling the car," Rossi said. "Because of that, we decided to try and skip a pit stop.

"The farthest really anyone had gone until that point was 32 laps, so you were talking about 10 miles longer. We all knew we were going to run out of fuel—whether it's way too short and it's a cool story, whether we run out and it's heartbreakingly close, or whether we run out and we win.”

Rossi was slowing. With two laps to go, he was running 214 mph. Others were around 221.

"Half a lap lead," his team radioed before he took the white flag. "Clutch and coast. Save fuel. Clutch and coast."

Rossi's assistant engineer, who was calculating fuel down to the tenth of a gallon, knew he’d run out between turns two and three on the last lap. Right before that happened, the radio message flipped: "Full throttle. Full throttle. Full throttle. Full throttle."

Rossi used what was left in the fuel lines to gain an extra 40 to 50 mph, which he said he wouldn't have done without the team's order. He was in fuel-saving mode, after all.

"That ultimately won us the race," Rossi said. "Had we tried to coast down from 160 versus 200, it probably wouldn't have been the same result."

Then the car died. Rossi estimated he had about a mile to go.

He pulled in the clutch paddles to "have the least amount of rolling resistance, then took the shortest line possible." It was all he could do.

"When it finally sputtered and shut off, I remember getting the update: 'He's out of turn two,'" Rossi said, figuring Muñoz was 12 to 14 seconds back. "I didn't necessarily think that was enough, because at 100 miles per hour, you're talking about a lot of ground really quickly."

The crowd roared over the sound of Rossi's long-dead race car, but that wasn't on his radar yet. Rossi was focused—and a little bewildered.

"It was such a wild thought for everyone, including myself, that we could even have an opportunity to win," Rossi said. "Even though I was exiting the final corner in the lead, that didn't really register."

Photo credit: Jonathan Ferrey
Photo credit: Jonathan Ferrey

But it did register for Rossi's team and co-owner Bryan Herta. His in-car radio erupted with the news: "You just won the Indy 500, baby!"

"The first reaction I had was, 'Thank God, we finished,'" Rossi said. "It was, I'd say, two or three seconds after I'd crossed the line when the realization came. That, coupled with hearing the crowd's reaction, was a huge rush of emotions."

The rest of the day was a blur—"a lot of stuff in a short period of time, being pulled in a lot of different directions"—but the finish remains vivid. It also remains surreal: a reminder that even in one of motorsport's most spectacular events, it's still possible to win in new, even more spectacular ways.

That, Rossi said, is part of what makes the Indy 500 so special.

"It's not necessarily the fastest car that wins," Rossi said. "I've gone back five times since, and we've had the car [set] to win two or three times and haven’t. Just because you have a good car, the team's working well, and you're fast, it doesn't guarantee you anything.

"They say that the track chooses the winner, and in some respects, I think that's true. That's why it means so much when you win."

Alanis King is a transportation editor at Business Insider, and she previously worked as a staff writer and editor at Jalopnik. She likes cats and bad chain restaurants, and her book about the Rich Energy Haas F1 team will be out in 2022.

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