Takeru Kobayashi: Epicurean, Champion, World-Class Athlete

Takeru Kobayashi: Epicurean, Champion, World-Class Athlete

The story of my dinner with the greatest eater in the world.

One of the many distinguishing characteristics of Philadelphia sports fans is that we appreciate the players who work the hardest, often even more than those who have the most natural ability. Grit over grace, to put it another way. Phillies fans absolutely lose it when Roy Halladay is outdoors at Citizens Bank Park in frigid, mid-winter temperatures, working as diligently as humanly possible to become the greatest pitcher in Major League Baseball. More than the remembrances of scoring titles and highlight-reel goals from the mid-90s, Flyers fans latched on to the fact that Jaromir Jagr holds late night skates to build his lower body strength. We hold second baseman Chase Utley in high esteem for the tremendous amounts of film he watches of his opponents before and after games every day to be as prepared as possible to be the best baseball player he can be.

Could that same work ethic be found—and appreciated—in competitive eating, long a source for humor if not scorn toward its indulgence in the most physically revolting of the seven deadly sins?

I recently sat down to dinner with the world’s most recognizable eating champion, Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi, and was left wondering if he isn’t every bit as respectable in his approach to his own arena of competition. What follows are my impressions of Kobayashi after sharing a delicious meal with the champ.

They call Kobayashi “the Babe Ruth of competitive eating," which is fair in that it points out that he is considered the greatest to ever compete in his sport -- and it is a sport to him, we'll get to that later -- but that's probably where the comparisons end. Kobayashi may have played baseball as a young kid in Japan, but that’s where his career in traditional sports ended, veering into a competition that Ruth looked far better suited to win. Separated by generations, Ruth and Kobayashi may still be kindred spirits in that neither’s body looked the part. The Babe never took impeccable care of his body like this diminutive, toned Japanese eater does. Ruth looked a lot more like most of the other competitors Kobayashi will sit among at WIP’s Wing Bowl XX, the first time he has ever competed in the infamous Philly celebration of chicken wings, loose women, and way-too-early-in-the-morning beer.

[photo gallery: the 2011 Wing Bowl | video: the 2011 Wing Bowl]

Kobayashi sustains an exacting focus on nutrition and a cutting-edge weight training regimen, and he watches game film to turn his body into the absolute perfect vessel for his sport. Like me, you may be wondering, but how can a guy who puts so much crap into his body weigh only 128 pounds and be so physically fit at the same time? It certainly an enigma, but the more he shares of his training routines, the more normal it becomes.

KOBI THE FOODIE

Shortly after taking photos of the seared scallops he selected for his main course at Garces Trading Company on Tuesday night, Kobayashi, or “Kobi” as he’s also called, said that what distinguishes him from other competitive eaters is that he isn’t just a junk food dumpster, despite appearances to the contrary at events such as Wing Bowl and the Nathans hot dog competition in New York.

"I'm the only person who is able to completely separate tournament eating and eating as a whole," he says. "I have always loved food. I've been obsessed with it to the point where I maybe would have enjoyed being a food critic. When I eat normally and when I compete, it still goes in the same mouth, but it's completely different. My brain works in a completely different way."

Part of the gimmick of going out to a nice dinner with the man who can eat more than any human on the planet, I thought, would be watching him order his meal to see just how much food he'd choose to consume under normal circumstances. That ploy was foiled a bit when I learned that it happened to be Restaurant Week in Philadelphia which meant a four course pre fixe menu.

As I'd learn, Kobi -- while he did eat all of his meal and most of his manager/interpreter Maggie James's meal as well -- is much more concerned with taste than quantity. It also helped that he had already had quite a bit to snack on earlier in the day.

Whereas my own breakfast and lunch consisted of a bowl of oatmeal and half a meatball sub, Kobi had already polished off… wait for it… 300 chicken wings, a couple of Tony Luke's Italian Roast Porks and a few Cheeesesteaks, and a whole box of cookies to wash them down. The tiny man sitting across from me cleaning his plate had already eaten 300 wings earlier in the day as part of his training for Friday's big event, the top prize of which is a $20,000 pay check.

Three hundred wings. For practice.

(He also weighed in on the age-old Philly debate: "If I want to have a heavier food, I order the cheesesteak. If I want a bit lighter food, I'd order the Roast Pork.")

But while the 300 wings he ate earlier in the day may have still been lingering in his body, Kobi was enthralled with his current surroundings and the opportunity to eat again. The restaurant I had chosen is sort of part market, part restaurant, with a wine store attached to the side as well. "I love it. It's so cool," he told me of Iron Chef Garces’ joint.

"I'm in love with the performance here," Kobi said of Garces Trading Co. "You can shop, you can get quality cheese, you can taste all the different oils."

"They took all those things I love about Chelsea Market and you get to sit in the middle of it and look at it all while you're eating."

Being the best competitive eater on the planet has afforded Kobayshi the ability to travel all over the world and eat at many of the finest restaurants. For a guy who shovels food into his mouth for a living, I didn't expect such an appreciation of aesthetics, taste, and in particular the fact that many of the products used to prepare our meal were locally sourced. Perhaps the most emotion he showed all evening was when his translator Maggie told him that everything he ordered, from the house made pork rillette to the funghi pizza and seared scallops were all regional.

Kobi doesn't just enjoy eating delicious meals, he's also been taking photos of them for years and posting them on his blog -- sort of a Foodspotting before Foodspotting. If you're not familiar with the website or iPhone app, it's a service dubbed as "a visual guide to good food and where to find it" where you basically post photos of all the different foods you eat to share with fellow food geeks. So it was a natural fit for Kobi to team up with Foodspotting to share the many meals he eats with thousands of fans. Just this week he became an official feat
ured partner at KobiEats
.

Here's the photo he took of the delicious scallops from our meal on Tuesday.


SERIOUS TRAINING TO EAT 300 WINGS

He called the scallops, "beautiful," but I still couldn't get the 300 wings he had eaten earlier in the day out of my head. When was the last time you ate more than 10 or 20?

Curious about the rest of his training regimen for Wing Bowl, he told me he began his training for Wing Bowl in early December. For the first few weeks, that training consisted solely of "stomach stretching" by drinking obscene amounts of water. Once the stomach stretching was progressing nicely, he finally started out with a "small amount" of wings at the very end of the December. What's a "small amount" to Kobi? Only a measly 100 wings. But his training isn't set in stone months in advance. Instead, he trains based on how his body is feeling at any given time.

"Some people think that I have this thing that I do for every food, but it's not that way,” Kobi said, noting different foods do different things to his body. “Every competition with every food is completely different; your body feels different so you kind of have to tailor it each time and do what you think is right."

Kobi thought it was right for his body to eat at least 200 wings every day he's been in Philly for the entire week leading up to the big competition on February 3rd -- aside from today, when he’ll eat like a “normal person” to rest his throat for tomorrow. You do the math and Kobi will have eaten well over 1,000 wings this week. That's before the competition even starts.

Kobe Bryant may practice in the gym and not leave until he makes 300 jumpshots. That's in preparation for the real competition which are the games. Kobi is no different, except his "work in the gym" consists of eating 300 chicken wings. Just a day at the office.

While many in the States may scoff at the idea of Kobi being one of the best athletes in the world, he regularly meets with a group of elite Japanese athletes to compare workout notes from a variety of fields. They often marvel at his physical abilities and training regimen.

"When I first realized that I wanted to take this seriously and turn it into a sport, I knew that I had to drop everything that was extra in my life and focus completely," he says. "If I expect for the world to believe this, I better put everything into it. When I line up with other athletes, I better make sure that they look at me and say 'wow!' That was in my mind from the very beginning. There's no room to be silly about it.”

Part of the problem some athletes have, according to Kobi, is that they think bigger is always better. Instead, they should focus on what is appropriate for their particular sport.

"Many Japanese athletes I've met, I always think they should learn more about weight training. There's no sport that athletes couldn't do better with a little more education about weight training. People think weight training is just about creating hard muscles and becoming stronger, but it's not just that. A lot of it is about which muscles to train, some muscles are supposed to be soft and flexible. It's really about where you put it and how you want to use it. Is that muscle even necessary for your sport?"


WELCOME TO THE STRIPPER CIRCUS, A LONELY WORLD

Bringing the conversation back to Wing Bowl, the majority of the competitors pretty much think it's a gag. Training? Most competitors think showing up at a local bar and simply throwing down as many wings as they can while washing it down with a few pitchers of light beer will have them ready for Wing Bowl. But Kobi knows that reigning champion Super Squib and former champion El Wingador are skilled at the art of wing eating, but that will not bother him on Friday.

"I know that they are strong players," Kobi says of the pair. "I know that they have certain things they are better at than I am. But I don't worry."

He admits that the art of cleaning a wing is much more of a technique than, say, a hot dog. His main competitors have plenty of experience in mastering the technique, but Kobi's been fine tuning his like Chase Utley works on his approach at the plate (the other plate).

"The key to success with wings is technique, but that's not the only thing that's going to get you through the entire contest. Hot dogs take more energy, wings take more technique."

Aside from eating thousands and thousands of wings over the past two months, Kobi has watched hours of film of his main competitors, gleaning the best aspects of their wing-eating style and trying to turn it into a style that works best for him. He's watched how his competitors eat. He's timed the pace they eat wings at to better prepare himself and know what it will take to win.

"I watch all the actions of all the eaters. Of course I learn from them, especially going into a contest I've never been in before like wings. First I look at what each of the competitors do and then I see what aspects of their game that I could use."

He watches film on wing techniques. That's how seriously he takes all of this.

Kobi is also not worried about Bill "El Wingador" Simmons -- a competitor he considers a good friend -- warning's that the Japanese outsider could get booed by the local crowd. Kobi says that if 20,000 people are booing him, it would be hard to ignore, but when he's on his game, he's in a zone and it's all about him not what's going on around him.

It's also impossible to talk to anyone about Wing Bowl without pointing out that 9 out of 10 people think it's a joke, an occasion to get drunk at the crack of dawn and see the yearly gathering of strippers show off their breasts. Kobi embraces this circus atmosphere and credits the creators for the base idea, but he won't let it knock him off his game either.

"When I first went [but didn’t compete], I was like 'What!' but the thing is, if you're not negative about it, not the sports part, but the whole concept of the event is funny. Whoever created Wing Bowl was thinking about everything a man would want: wings, beer, and women. The concept was 'Let's make an event that would make the male animal happy.' If you don't think of it negatively, and look at it as a funny project, it can be funny in a positive way."

It's a bit of a contradiction, how he takes his sport so seriously -- "there's no room to be silly" -- yet at the same time realize that his Super Bowl, his World Series Game 7 takes place in a booze-infested stripper-packed arena where fans cheer the loudest for nipples and vomiting. But make no mistake, he's absolutely serious about eating as a sport. After pointing out that he's at the top of his craft, considered the best in the world to ever do what he does, Kobi seemed to get a bit philosophical.

"You say I'm at the top of my game which isn't a bragging statement because I am at the top of my game. The thing is, I didn't grow to be there. When I first came out I was at the top. I didn't really know what losing was about. Every time out I would double my amount or set a record. It's always been that way. I've never felt like I was going up. Because I've always been at the top, my standards have never been how far I go towards the top. My standards have always been what can I do with what I have and how much stronger can I be myself. I'm always only going against myself because it's a lonely world. There aren't that many people around me to look at. If you think about it that way, I'm still always trying to go further.

"From the beginning, my job has not been to come into this sport and be
another player and just be the best player. I came into this and pioneered this as a sport," Kobi said. "I'm telling people this is a sport. It's not just a fat man's thing. That hasn't changed, I'm still on that mission to tell people this is a sport. I haven't even come close to the goal of what I'm going for as an athlete or as a pioneer of the sport."


WING BOWL 20 AND THE CHEESESTEAK GUY

It's clear that there's more to Kobayashi than simply wanting to win every competition he participates in. He also wants to bring a legitimacy to the sport that could inspire others to take it as seriously as he does, but while he's here in Philadelphia, he's going to have as much fun with it as possible -- a sea change of sorts from his earlier days in eating. He's admittedly a strange character, but says he's really opened up in the last few years, enjoying going out to dinner with sports bloggers and opening up about how he approaches not only his sport, but his life. "I was a late bloomer in understanding life, but I was always great as an eater," he says.

Aside from his giddiness when told about the food we were eating being locally sourced, Kobi got most animated when asked about his "entourage." Part of the Wing Bowl tradition requires each eater to make a grand entrance, as flashy or fleshy as possible, preferably. The goal is to excite the crowd to get them on your side when the munching gets under way. The two key ingredients to a solid entourage are Philly sports bonafides and breasts. Kobi will employ the former with the help of Philadelphia personality, SAG Award shower-upper, and cheesesteak impresario Tony Luke Jr. Kobi appreciated the value in good entrance.

"There's no way that you can completely separate sports and entertainment," he said. "No way. I'm very dedicated to the rules of sports and I'm an athlete, but packaging is so important. Of course, going into something, any artist wants to get pumped up."

Kobi and his people wanted to keep the exact details of his entourage under wraps until Friday, but expect a very Philly-centric theme on Friday.

"For me, I was kind of like, 'woo-hoo!' This is kind of the cool thing about Wing Bowl. I get to be really creative for once. I want to do this, this, and this."

After learning about his love of fine food, photography, and his higher goals of striving to bring legitimacy to his sport, I ask him over dessert what he expects to happen on Friday at Wing Bowl 20.

Finishing a spoonful of his winter verrine of caramel apples, butterscotch pudding, and cornmeal streusel, he answered matter of factly.

"I want to win," Kobayashi said with a big smile before pausing. Then clarified further.

"I don't just want to win, I want to win with a score over 300 wings."

The record set last year at Wing Bowl 19 by Super Squibb was 255 wings eaten by one man.

I'd be shocked if Takeru Kobayashi didn't shatter that on Friday.

Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

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Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

CHICAGO – The Ryan Howard drama continues to simmer.
 
Howard’s dwindling production has led to dwindling playing time. He did not start against a right-handed pitcher for the second time in eight days on Sunday (see game recap).
 
After the game, manager Pete Mackanin addressed the uncomfortable situation and said he would continue to trim Howard’s playing time against right-handers because he wants to look at Tommy Joseph, who has 10 hits, including three homers and a double, in his first 35 big-league at-bats.
 
“We brought Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him,” Mackanin said. “I can’t let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he’s going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing. I don’t know when the next time we’re going to face a left-handed pitcher is, but I’m going to use (Joseph) a little bit more often than I did Ruf.”
 
Since the end of last July, Howard has gone from being a full-time player to a platoon guy, facing just righties. Now, he’s migrating toward more of a reserve role.
 
Taking away playing time from a club icon – Howard is a former NL MVP and World Series champion -- is not easy, but Mackanin has little choice. Howard is hitting .154 with eight homers and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats over 44 games. He has struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances. Howard’s average for the month of May is .097 (6 for 62) and he has 25 strikeouts. He recently used the word “brutal” to describe how the month of May has been going.
 
Mackanin was asked about Howard’s mindset in relation to losing playing time.
 
“I don’t know how he feels,” Mackanin said. “I’m sure we’ll talk to him and we’ll go from there. The important thing is that we brought Joseph up here to get a look at him, and as I said, if he sits on the bench for a week or 10 days and we don’t get a look at him, what’s the point of bringing him up?”
 
Howard started Saturday against Cubs’ righty Kyle Hendricks and went hitless.
 
After Sunday's game, Howard was asked if he was surprised to see he was not in the lineup.
 
“I guess, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t make the lineup. The manager makes the lineup. I just show up. If I’m in there, I’m in there, if I’m not, I’m not."
 
Howard said he was unaware of Mackanin’s intention to sit him more against righties.
 
“I haven’t heard anything about sitting more against righties,” he said. “I haven’t been called into the office and talked to about it, so you guys apparently have breaking news before I do.”
 
Howard's status in the lineup and with the team has been an issue for almost two years. Before the 2015 season, former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted it would be best if Howard moved on. The Phillies tried to trade him last year, but there was no interest. 

Howard is in the final year of a five-year, $125 million contract that did not kick in until after he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon rupture on his final swing of the 2011 season.
 
He is still owed more that $26 million in salary for 2016 and an option year buyout for 2017.

Howard isn't walking away from that kind of money.

Would the team release him to solve this uncomfortable situation? Or will it ride out the final four months of the season and the contract with Howard as a part-time player?

Time will tell.

Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

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Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

CHICAGO – The Phillies are rebuilding.

The Chicago Cubs are focused on winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

And they have a team that can do it.

So the events of the last three days at Wrigley Field were not that surprising.

The Phillies suffered a three-game sweep, capped off by Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 loss.

When the Phillies departed Citizens Bank Park last week, they had a 25-19 record and were one of the surprise teams in the majors.

But the trip to Detroit and Chicago figured to be a stiff test. The Tigers pound the baseball. The Cubs do everything.

In the end, the Phillies won just one of the six games on the trip. They limp home at 26-24 for a matchup Monday night with the Washington Nationals.

Is the Phillies’ unexpected, early-season magic fading?

“That’s up for debate, I guess,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Every team goes through a hot streak and a cold streak. How you come out those streaks, especially now with a cold streak, determines how good of a team you are. I choose to believe we’re at the bottom of the roller coaster and on our way up.”

The Phils were outscored 17-5 by the Cubs in this weekend’s series. The Cubs’ starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – combined to allow just three earned runs in 22 ⅓ innings. And Jake Arrieta, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, did not appear in the series.

After Sunday’s game, Mackanin was asked what he learned about his club on the trip.

“I didn’t learn anything about my team,” he said. “I learned first-hand that the Cubs have a lot going for them. They’re a good team, probably the best team in baseball right now and they beat us fair and square.”

They do have the best record in the majors at 34-14.

It was not surprising to hear that Mackanin didn’t learn anything about his club during the trip. He knows the Phillies are rebuilding and have glaring holes. He knows the pitching has kept them in games and allowed them to win a bunch by one run. He also knows it’s difficult to sustain that with a team that averages just 3.22 runs per game, second-lowest in the majors. Sunday marked the 19th time the Phillies have scored two or fewer runs.

Looking for more offense, Mackanin sent Ryan Howard to the bench Sunday against a right-handed pitcher and used Tommy Joseph. Joseph hit a homer in the ninth inning. After the game, Mackanin said he would continue to get Joseph playing time against right-handers.

Power-armed right-hander Vince Velasquez had a difficult trip. Against two of the toughest lineups in baseball, he pitched 8 ⅔ innings over two starts. He gave up 18 hits, five of which were homers, and 10 earned runs. The Cubs got him for nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. He gave up two homers, a solo shot in the second and a three-run blow in the third.

The three-run homer, by Ben Zobrist, gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead and ignited the daily Happy Hour in the stands.

Two batters before Zobrist homered, Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis failed to make a play on a hard-hit one-hopper by Kris Bryant. Galvis backed up and gloved the hot smash, but threw quickly, off-balance and wildly to first. It was ruled a hit. Had Galvis made the play, it would have ended the inning. Instead, Velasquez issued a two-out walk to extend the inning further and Zobrist hit the two-out homer.

“I don’t know why Freddy got rid of the ball so quick,” Mackanin said. “I thought he could have planted and thrown it over there. But I’m not going to be critical of Freddy Galvis. He’s been unbelievable, just outstanding.”

Zobrist’s homer was one of six the Cubs hit in the three games. Two of them were three-run shots. The Phillies had just two homers in the series. Both came Sunday after the club was down 7-0.

“We didn’t string hits together,” Mackanin said.

Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

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USA Today Images

Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- A new era for the Indianapolis 500 arrived in the form of a most unfamiliar driver.

An American, no less.

Alexander Rossi outlasted his faster rivals - and his fuel tank - for a stunning victory Sunday in the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." The unlikely win allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their storied careers and it left the top drivers in the field fuming over Rossi's good fortune.

Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.

Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by team co-owner Bryan Herta to conserve fuel, and he ultimately ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag.

His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed to the party. He sat in the car for some time before climbing out to take that sweet sip of milk.

"I have no idea how we pulled that off," he declared.

"I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time," Rossi said. "The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, `Wow, I'll need to see a psychiatrist after this.'"

Rossi didn't have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn't have a chance to race his teammate for the victory, even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail's pace of 179.784 mph.

The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after his second runner-up finish in four years.

"I was really disappointed when it comes with fuel and you lose the race because of that," Munoz said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. What can I say? The only thing I'm clear about is that I will win this race one day."

Munoz has contended at Indy before and he's proven to be fast at the speedway.

Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.

He's an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. He left for Europe when he was 16 and never pursued a career in American open-wheel racing. But stuck without a ride this year, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win, and he knows what an Indy 500 victory means.

"I have no doubt it's going to change my life," he said.

Although he's a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.

"I can't compare (the wins) other than to say I am so happy," Herta said. " I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking of him on the radio."

This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.

Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.

"Ryan and Townsend looked really good up front, we thought they would be the team to beat," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Unfortunately, they had their problem in the pit, which I could not believe, and I thought that may have been our shot at winning."

Herta decided to gamble with Rossi on fuel strategy, and it's the only thing that made him a late contender.

As the laps wound down, American Josef Newgarden and Munoz repeatedly swapped the lead. Both had to stop for gas, Rossi moved into the lead and it was all his from there.

Michael Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.

"I knew Alex was going to try (the fuel strategy), and we said `Alright, if he's going to try it, we're going to try something else (with Munoz)," Andretti said. "To come home 1-2 is just incredible. It was amazing. I don't know what to say, it's a great day, to be a part of history, to win the 100th running, and to win it with a 1-2 finish is just incredible."

Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.

Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. Hinchcliffe, the pole winner who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.

"If I was in Alex's position, I'd be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn't care how we won the damn race," Newgarden said. "Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy. Those guys, to put it politely, weren't as strong as us. They didn't have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them."

In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He was in Monaco this time last year for F1's signature race, unsure of what his future held.

"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history.

He will now also become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.