BUXTON: The Secret

We’ve all got that one friend. You know the one. Incessantly posting motivational memes on their Facebook page. Or worse, having the temerity to post them on yours. You can’t delete the damned thing for fear of offending their supposed kindness. And yet its gaudy existence stabs at the root of your soul, its hideousness creating the slow realization that all of your friends now assume you’ve become that guy.

Generic photo of a sunset, flowery font, nauseating drivel about determination, riding through hardship, believing in yourself, et cetera.

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars.”

Bollocks. Miss the moon and with any luck you’ll land in the yellow dwarf G2V star with a core temperature in excess of 27 million degrees that we commonly refer to as the Sun. Where you, and your Facebook-flooding gibberish belong.

Anyway, more on this later.

Actually, while we are on the topic of launching people into the Sun, never to be heard of again, I’d like to propose a special one-way shuttle filled with all those who don’t believe Alexander Rossi’s Indy 500 win was righteous. There seems to be a misplaced feeling amongst the somewhat less-imaginative race fan that the manner in which Rossi took the flag at the 100th running of the 500 flew at odds with the very principals of racing. Again, to thee, I say: bollocks.

“The secret,” said Niki Lauda of the art of racing, “is to win going as slowly as possible.” This is a quote often also attributed to Juan Manuel Fangio, but the philosophy is one which served some of the all-time greats, from the quintuple-championship-winning Argentine to Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost. The trick was to be kind to your equipment, to drive it as fast but as lovingly and sparingly as you could. Go easy on the tires, easy on the gas, easy on the chassis and be rewarded with a car as good at the end as it was at the start.

Perhaps the greatest proponent of the art was Sir Stirling Moss. And his supreme moment came at the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix (above).

Moss lined up in a privately-entered Cooper against the might of the Grandees and in particular, Ferrari. In those days the tires were only good for 30 laps; 40 at the most. But the Argentine Grand Prix was to be contested over 80 tours. You couldn’t finish the race without stopping for new tires. It was impossible.

The big problem for Moss was that each of the Cooper’s tires were fixed with four studs, rather than the quick hammer release nut on the Ferraris. Given that each stud would need to be unscrewed, the wheel removed and then each stud screwed back on again, Moss couldn’t win against the simple one nut hammer-on, hammer-off at Ferrari. The pit stop delta was too vast.

At the start, the little Cooper blasted into the lead. But nobody paid it any attention. He’d have to stop for tires once, maybe twice, and all would be lost. But he didn’t stop. He carried on. And on. Past 40 laps. Past 50. Past 60.

By the time Ferrari had figured out he wasn’t going to stop at all, it was too late. The pack gave chase, but Moss took the checkered flag and victory by 2.7 seconds from Luigi Musso. His tires were down to the canvas. He’d been driving on the grass in the closing laps to try and cool them down. He crossed the line, stopped, and the car sank as the air finally blew out of the tires.

 


 

“Was I brave that day or stupid?” Moss once said to me. “To this day I don’t know, as the two were very closely related. I did everything you shouldn’t normally do to win that race.”

The objective of racing is to cover the prescribed distance in as short a time as possible. How one goes about that is part of the allure. But the stopwatch does not lie.

To pretend that Alexander Rossi backed his way into the Indy 500 win by going slow is disingenuous in the extreme. He held the fastest lap of the race. That he also held the slowest is testament to just how smart a game he and Bryan Herta played.

But when the stopwatch marked time and the checkered flag fell after 500 miles of racing, Rossi stopped it at 3hr00m02.0872s. Carlos Munoz achieved the 500 miles in 3hr00m06.5847s. There is no argument in this. The clock never lies. Rossi and Herta’s strategy was just under 4.5s quicker than that of their rivals. It required brains, guts, intelligence, feel, skill and not a small amount of luck to pull it off. But they did so and, for my money, it was one of the smartest race wins I’ve seen in years. And was every bit as nail biting as a three-wide win by a cigarette paper.

People will say I’m biased; that I’m too close to Alexander to see the race finish in anything but a positive light. But hell, even if it had backfired and he’d come home half a lap down, I’d still praise the guts of the strategy and the manner in which the team and driver tried to execute that most complex, challenging and revered of racing maxims; to perfect “the secret,” as Lauda referred to it.

The NBC Sports Indy 500 viewing party has become something of a Monaco Grand Prix tradition. We finish our race broadcast, retire to our hotel half an hour’s drive west down the coast from Monte Carlo in the French village of Beaulieu, order a few bottles of wine and chow down on pizza and roadside burgers. We whoop and cheer every pass. And on Sunday night I’m not ashamed to say I wept as Alexander Rossi crossed the line.

I’ve known Alexander for the better part of the last decade, and in that time I’ve seen him go through incredible highs and crushing lows. Leaving America to concentrate on the European ladder to Formula 1 took him away from friends and family at the time in all our lives that we need those people the most. He matured quickly but remained guarded, his mildly introverted character meaning that you rarely saw the true him on first meeting. Or second. 

He is a good soul and a kind man, born of a devilish sense of humor and a wickedly funny streak. But he is hardworking, committed and desperately focused on his craft. Religiously devout, he is loyal to a fault and utterly intolerant to perceived injustices. He bleeds red, white and blue.

This is a man America does not yet know. How can it? He left to pursue his dream of Formula 1. He didn’t set out on the simple path that would have launched him naturally to the point at which he now finds himself. He didn’t set out to race in IndyCar. Neither, though, did Dario Franchitti. Or Scott Dixon. Simon Pagenaud, TK, Will Power. Neither did Josef Newgarden or Conor Daly. Yet Rossi is marked as the black sheep. The man who left America, returning only as a last-gasp option.

His comments earlier in the year probably didn’t help him out in that regard, but you can’t say Rossi is anything but an open book. Ask him a question and you’ll get an answer, whether its what you want to hear or not.

 


 

Above: The normally stoic Rossi showed genuine emotion.

I last saw him in Sochi, in his role as Manor F1’s reserve driver. Of course, returning to the F1 paddock still felt like home to him. It’s where he has based himself and the point upon which he had set his focus for his entire adult life. But the passion with which he spoke about IndyCar made me confident it was starting to feel less so. Because in IndyCar there was a car he absolutely loved, and a championship that had embraced him and made him feel welcome. He waxed lyrical about the challenge of driving the final corners at Barber and the thrill of short-course oval racing at Phoenix. And Indy?

“I don’t think I’ll really know what to make of it until I get there,” he smiled.

How right he was.

My first visit to Indianapolis changed my life, and I was only broadcasting a qualifying show. Rossi just won the 100th running of the Indy 500. On debut. In front of a sell-out crowd. As an American. His life will be changed forever – and for the better.

The tears you heard were real. The emotion you so rarely get to hear from his one-pitch baritone Californian drawl, was real. In that one moment, you got to see and hear the real Alexander Rossi.

The guy who spent the whole winter training to recover from knee surgery. The guy who a few years ago spent the day giving the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet rides and donuts in a Caterham (left) just because he was in Bahrain and had some spare hours. The guy who dresses up as a tree on Halloween. The guy who blasts remote control speedboats down the Thames. The guy who had his racing dream put in front of him and then taken away time and time again. The guy who wrestled with whether he should carry on competing after the death of his friend Jules Bianchi. The guy who carried #JB17 on his helmet for 500 miles on Sunday. The guy who’s turned up to every charity night I’ve ever hosted, just to spend time with fans. The guy who won at Monza. The guy who won at Spa. The guy who loves his family, his God, his country and his sport. The guy who didn’t have a race seat four months ago.

The guy who lives to race.

We all have dreams, but it’s often when we wake from those dreams that the reality hits us as being so much better than anything we could have imagined.

Alexander Rossi should not be maligned for chasing his dream. Few of us have the guts to do it, lest we might fail. He gave it everything. And, for the shortest of times, achieved it. That his path has ultimately brought him home should be celebrated.

Which, I guess, is where we came in.

Alexander Rossi shot for the moon. Rather than the stars, he now finds himself in a completely different universe: winner of the Indy 500. With a new career full of new challenges and an opportunity to define the next generation of a championship he loves. Perhaps even more so, because he never expected to have the chance to be part of it.

If you’re anything like me, then for the past week your Facebook timeline has become a scrapbook of articles about the 500, and countless photos of Alexander drinking the milk, crying from the emotion of the twists his life has taken and the realization of the magnitude of what he’d achieved.

Use that as your motivational meme. It’s the only thing you’ll ever need.


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