Fernando Alonso came to Indianapolis with a nearly impossible task: To not only perform well enough to justify skipping the biggest race of the Formula One season, but to serve as an ambassador in the process.
Politicians have cracked under much less of a spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Alonso during his stay, and he had to divide his time between his team, a load of media commitments and endless fan requests — all while figuring out how to race on an oval for the first time.
And yet Alonso truly represented himself better than anyone could have hoped; despite the 24th-place finish after a blown engine, the journey to Indianapolis was a success on all fronts.
He raced and conducted himself like a champion in so many ways. Even though his success might made the Indy 500 look easier than it is, being able to adapt so quickly surely had to raise his reputation as an all-around great racer.
But Alonso is a great professional off the track as well.
Take Sunday, for example. He was faced with a major disappointment after leading 27 laps and having a chance to win the race, only to have his engine expire with 20 laps to go.
Had Alonso called it a day without talking to the media and just left the track to beat the traffic, few could have really blamed him. But he did the opposite.
He changed into street clothes and did a TV interview, then watched the end of the race (Alonso said he was “on my knees” rooting for teammate Takuma Sato). After that, he came to the media center to face a large group of reporters.
Alonso was not under obligation to come, but he realized what a story he was — this race will be remembered more for his presence than Sato’s win — so he agreed to the interview.
But by Sunday, it was no surprise he would accommodate such a request. That’s because he went along with everything IndyCar and the track asked him to do, never complaining or saying it was too much.
He probably said “sure” a thousand times, whether it was for a media hit or a selfie with a fan while in transit. And he exhibited good nature throughout, never looking bored (even during the public drivers meeting) or acting like he was too good for something (like the hour-long public autograph session the day before the race).
That’s very impressive for a two-time Formula One world champion who — let’s face it — could have been a jerk to everyone and still been just as much of a story. It’s not like reporters could say, “Screw this guy, we aren’t giving him coverage.” This Indy 500 was all Alonso.
On Thursday, he was surrounded by a five-deep group of reporters for a solid hour during Indy 500 media day. After awhile, that kind of environment would get claustrophobic or irritating for even the best of us.
But Alonso answered all the questions — even if the question was a repeat — and was cool throughout the process. The time he gave was impressive for someone of his stature (and was a lot more of a commitment than the weekly F1 press conferences).
And despite hogging the attention leading into the race, Alonso charmed the heck out of everyone — fellow drivers and Indiana fans included — and left everyone wanting more. Fans greeted him with loud cheers before the race and a standing ovation after it.
“Thanks to IndyCar — amazing experience,” Alonso said. “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”
Alonso could have come to Indy and been selfish about the opportunity. But he wasn’t. He gave as much as he received. He showed respect to everyone and acted with class throughout the process.
At the end of Sunday’s post-race media session, the moderator dismissed Alonso. He was free to go.
“Last thing,” Alonso said.
He pulled out a small carton of milk and raised it as a toast.
“Thank you to all the media,” he said. “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You followed me for two weeks — every single minute — but I really enjoyed (it).
“Thanks for the welcoming.”
We can only hope he decides to come back soon.