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Back 9.12.2017

2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi Accelerates Career Through Cycling

Alexander Rossi, winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500, has a lifelong love of sports and speed. The once-aspiring ski racer California native soon turned to motor sports, starting with gokarts at age 10. He moved to Europe as a teen in pursuit of a racing career, eventually racing in F1 before returning to the United States. He’s now part of Andretti Autosport® in the Verizon® IndyCar® Series. Rossi recently won at Watkins Glen for his first road course victory.

Cycling has long been a part of Rossi’s training program. Since living in Indianapolis, the 25-year-old Rossi stepped up his riding and now counts the Zipp 454 NSW as his favorite wheelset. During one of his recent visits to the Zipp factory here in Indy, we sat down and talked with Rossi about his career and the role of cycling in his life:

You grew up near Lake Tahoe in Nevada City, Calf. You had interest in motor sports and downhill skiing from an early age. The Nevada City Classic is one of America’s most historic bike races. Where did cycling fit into your youth?
It was something we as a family would go to. We’d treat it like a parade. You’d go and set a cooler up and go with your grandma and grandpa and sit on the side of the street and watch the professional riders go.

We always had mountain bikes. Road biking wasn’t something I was really involved in until I got into the professional motorsports arena, but cycling was just a huge thing. It was something I loved to do during the summer. That was my summer sport. 

Did you dream of a career in Alpine skiing?
Yes, for sure. My dad was on a path to go to the Olympics and be a part of the U.S. ski team and then his parents died. That changed his life direction. As I was growing up, skiing was something that was a huge part of the family. My mom would pull me out of school when there was a good snow day… It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I found out that (auto) racing was what I loved the most because I was involved in all types of different activities. Racing just took priority over everything. But I was fortunate to learn early on that fitness was a pretty big part of being a professional racecar driver and being a successful one.

Did your embrace of speed sports come from your family, or was it something you learned, or both?
I think it’s what you’re exposed to. My dad grew up going to races with his father. He went to the Indy 500 with his dad when he was a boy and loved the experience. He then wanted to share that with me as he was growing up. I was an only child and he was a young dad. He had me when he was 23. It was about the sports he loved and what he enjoyed with his dad. We’d go to the race at Laguna Seca in Monterey and we went there from the time I was 3 years old in a stroller until I was 10, every single year. It was just something I developed a love for because it was something I did with my dad.

How is fitness important for racecar drivers?
Immediately when you think of that, you think that you have to be strong. But the cardio aspect of it is pretty big as well, a lot more than people realize. So you have your three main elements of getting cardio, you have swimming, running, and biking. The one I preferred the most was cycling.

When I was pursuing F1, I lived in Italy for about two years (from when he was 17 to 19) when I first moved to Europe and got involved with road cycling there really for the first time. I would just ride up and down the coast pretty much every day. It was something I got a lot of joy out of. I was also furthering my career. It was contributing to the success I was having on-track.

Are you Italian by heritage?
Yes, from both my mom and dad’s side, more my mom’s side. My grandmother, her parents came from Sicily.

What specifically are your fitness goals to be an effective IndyCar driver?
It’s endurance based. The main thing people don’t realize is the braking requirement. The brake pedal is just basically a solid pedal. There’s no power assistance. To get the deceleration you want, you have to hit the pedal with 3,000 PSI (pounds per square inch) of force. You can do squats, you can do lunges, you can do box jumps. You can do anything explosive you want to do with your legs, but what is going to give you endurance to do that for a 3 hour race, a 2 hour race? On top of that, (with cycling) you get the cardio component of it in a low-impact environment that’s a lot more fun than anything else you’re going to do.

It’s really everything you’re going to need. The only thing you need to add in addition to that is upper body strength because there’s no power-assisted steering. The steering is very heavy, and there’s a lot of opposing forces that you have when you’re going through corners. 

What about the mental side of auto racing having to maintain focus?
They call it a zone; you just kind of fall into it. Your actual conscious mind is focusing on the outside parameters of what’s going on. The actual driving side of it is second nature because things are happening too fast to be thinking about each action that you’re doing. Your actual conscious mind is thinking about the strategy, the balance of the car, which changes you’re going to make, what other people are doing…. The actual, “I’m going to brake here, downshift four gears, turn there,” it’s just happening. It’s similar to when you find a pace on a bike, right? You’re just going for “X” amount of miles. It’s not something you’re thinking about, each stroke, the amount of cadence and the posture you have, you’re just doing it. Your conscious mind is thinking about the rest of it.

Is there another sport where the athletic ability translates well to auto racing?
A lot of the guys, especially in Europe, they do a lot of triathlons.

Zipp was founded by an auto-racing engineer, Leigh Sargent. When did you learn about Zipp’s history and ties to motor sports?
I had no idea about any of it other than I knew Zipp was based in Indianapolis. When I first came here in 2007, a guy who was kind of the trainer at the time was like, “Oh, yeah, if you get a bike you have to have Zipp wheels.”

I knew they were based in Indianapolis, and they were the best of the best. I was told that from a young age, but I never knew any of the history. I didn’t know that it came from an auto-racing guy who saw the carbon work being done and thought he could do so much better. … It’s amazing because when I got the tour here, you know the wheels are light, you know they’re great, and they’re used by professionals all over the world, but you have no idea how much research goes into the wheel. It’s similar to a racecar. The amount of time we spend on uprights or wishbones (suspension) to keep them low drag for Indianapolis is unbelievable. It’s a piece of suspension that is two feet long, and you’ll spend four months trying to develop it. It’s the same thing for the wheels. It’s just something that people who aren’t involved in it don’t appreciate or realize until you get a glimpse into it, and then it blows your mind.

Explain the T-shirt you have on today, which says “Clutch and Chill - Indianapolis.”
Bryan Herta, who was my strategist during the 500 last year, we had to come up with a way to save an extra five laps of fuel. The longest anyone had ever gone was 31 laps. We had to go 36 laps. At the time, we didn’t have any other solution other than I was pulling the clutch in the corners and accelerating on the straights. There was a period of time where I was actually shutting the engine off and re-firing it. We were doing everything we could think of to save fuel. We were coming up with all of this on the fly, and it was either going to work or it wasn’t. That became a huge tagline that came with trying to win the Indy 500, which was “clutch and coast,” which is what he was yelling at me to do.

How did winning the Indianapolis 500 change your career?
It opened doors in the U.S. that weren’t ever going to be opened. It gave me an opportunity to stay in the Verizon IndyCar Series and to continue with Andretti Autosport and really to build a career here.

I had gone to Europe at such a young age that I really didn’t have brand awareness of who I was in the U.S…. Winning the 500 basically gave the opportunity for me to do a year-long media tour, because that’s what comes with the 500 and to explain my story and to explain how much I enjoyed IndyCar and the racing and what it was. As a result of that, we’ve made huge inroads into the fan base and the sport and American racing that wouldn’t have happened in such a short time.

Follow @AlexanderRossi on Twitter and Instagram.