LONG BEACH, Calif — Alex Palou proved to Chip Ganassi that he made the right hire around this time last year. The deal was done 11 months ago for Palou to join CGR and pilot the No. 10 Honda. But, that deal only happened because of a conversation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last August and an indirect silly season move that saw Felix Rosenqvist give up his seat unexpectedly to join Arrow McLaren SP, the same team that Palou staved off for this year’s title.
All Palou had to do was finish 13th or better in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and he did just that. He brought his Honda-Dallara home fourth. In just his second season, the Astor Cup championship trophy is his.
But, before we toast to his season, you have to respect the process on how he got here because this time last year, he felt like he was going to have to go back overseas to continue his racing career.
Palou, 24, thought his Indy Car days were numbered then. He was a rookie in 2020 and on a one-year deal with Dale Coyne Racing. He didn’t know it then, but the speed that he showed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August behind closed doors last year and that conversation sealed his fate.
His Fast Nine qualifying effort at Indy drew the eye of Mike Hull. He and Ganassi took notice of the young Spaniard. Palou even talked to both and introduced himself in Indy. But, while the folks at Ganassi were keeping an eye out on Palou, the talks really never went anywhere…yet.
So, with a great opportunity at hand a few weeks later in Mid-Ohio to where Palou was starting up front, it was a great chance for the rookie to show everyone what he can do. Then the opening lap crash occurred.
“I didn’t really have strong talks with Chip at the moment, so that was completely — I was devastated by Mid-Ohio because we had a good chance to stay up front and we crashed on the first lap, so that was not good, and that’s not what I needed,” Palou said.
I then talked to him a month later at Indy for the road course weekend and he said it was looking bleak that he’d be back at all for 2021 in fact.
“It’s been tough,” Palou said of this season last October to me. “2020 has been tough for everybody not only for me. It’s been hard because we showed almost every weekend that we had speed. The speed was there. Even on ovals. But, we didn’t really get the results. If you look at the results, I think we’re 17th but if you look at the results on the races and qualifying and free practices, we’ve never been 17th except for now. It’s been tough but it is what it is. We have to take it. We have to learn from it.
“But, it’s tough to say to somebody when you’re like that far back as I am. It’s a good thing to have pace everywhere but it’s hard to go to a guy and say give me a chance when he may say ‘oh man I don’t know if I can give you a chance.’ Hopefully we can have another chance. That would be a dream. I don’t think that we did enough. We tried but I don’t think we have the results to deserve another year.
“It’s looking bad. It’s a bad year for everybody to commit. It’s hard to commit without the sponsors with the results that we’re having. It’s going to be tough but we’re still pushing.”
Then, Rosenqvist gave Palou an unexpected yet indirect lifeline. Rosenqvist, would move from Ganassi to drive the second car at Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. The seat in the No. 10 Honda was open. Ganassi then knew just the guy that he wanted in it.
Ganassi, worked out a deal with Palou between the Harvest Grand Prix and the season finale later that month at St. Pete and the rest was history.
Dario Franchitti confirmed that it was Indy to which Palou stood out to them.
“Really it was Indy last year. I’d watched Alex in the early races, but at Indianapolis, it was the first race I’d been at in person last year. I watched what was going on, as I do in practice. I thought, Okay, he’s pretty good,” he said.
“I went up and said hello to Alex in the paddock. He was walking out of Gasoline Alley. I was walking in. Great job, keep it up. He said something like, I hope one day I do a good enough job that I can drive for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I spoke to Mike Hull, I said, This kid’s really, really good, man.
“He said, I think so, too.
“The next day Alex said something to Chip, introduced himself to Chip.
“When the opportunity came up for somebody to go in the 10 car when Felix decided to go to McLaren, it was like, Oh, he’s our guy.
“Yeah, it was watching him at Indy, then watching what he did throughout the rest of the season that convinced me, but more importantly convinced Chip, Mike and the engineers.”
Palou, says that the trust the team had in him then and now speaks volumes.
“But Chip — and not only Chip, but all the team trusted in me, believed in me, and they gave me this opportunity, which is amazing,” Palou said of Ganassi. “Like going from not knowing if you’re going to be around next year or not and then suddenly they give you the champion car, it’s like, wow, amazing.”
With that said, working out this deal should come with some new pressure. Being a rookie is tough enough, but doing so during COVID was ridiculously hard. Then to do so in IndyCar with such steep competition, you weren’t going to be judged as harshly.
But, to come back in a second year in a car as good as the one that he’s in, well the pressure and expectations rise higher.
“I don’t think it’s the expectations,” Palou said during the INDYCAR Media Day. “I don’t think that in the sport world we have to have expectations. I don’t like to have expectations. I like to have targets. I think it’s better to have the target to be winning and not to have the expectation to be winning because we are like 25 drivers. Everybody wants to be winning and everybody would expect to be winning.
“Yeah, the target is to win some races, to fight for the championship. We know we have the resources. We know that we have all the engineers, all the mechanics, the crew chief. We know we have the car. We know we have the sponsors. And we know we have everything to win. Now it’s all up to us.
“I think this year there’s, like, 12 drivers that are in the same position, with really good cars, some experience and with the hunger to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll try to make it.”
Boy did he ever. He won the first race out in Barber. It was just the ninth time that CGR had won a season opener in the series. 5 of the previous 8 times, the driver ended up earning the championship at seasons end too.
Now it’s 6-for-9.
But, it almost didn’t happen. August and a preseason Barber test almost cost him a title though. That’s all due to him having an engine blow during preseason testing and due to engine limits for a season, it already put them one behind. Eventually, they knew it would catch up to them.
For Belle Isle, it finally did. He had a six spot grid penalty for Race 1 that weekend and he’d only get up to 15th as a result. He’d have another for Nashville to start the month of August off with. Instead of starting third, he’d start ninth. He’d only finish seventh due to that. For Indy, he made his way up to fourth but blew another engine late in the race. That cost him a nine spot grid penalty for Gateway and while marching his way forward, he was collected in a crash.
His finishes in these races?
15th, 7th, 27th and 20th respectively.
His finishes in the other races?
10 top four’s and 11 top sevens in 12 tries. Take the engine penalties out and stats prove he’d have a top five car in those races. Where would the championship be if so?
Also, you can point to Barber as the reason he’s here now fighting for a title too. Palou, started off in Row 2 that day and bad luck for Pato O’Ward forced him to pit early in his first stint due to a slow leak in a tire. Alexander Rossi thought O’Ward was going for a three stop strategy and tried to cover him by pitting too.
That handed Palou the lead. Rossi, wasn’t aware O’Ward was pitting early for a problem. Neither rebounded and Palou won his first ever NTT IndyCar Series race as a result. O’Ward finished fourth and Newgarden was collected in a first lap crash of his doing.
Now he’s a champion driving for a team that he’s always wanted to be a part of. He said back before the season even started that he just wanted to be in a position to be part of a winning team, a historical team, and to be in the No. 10 is just amazing to him. He cites that the car has so much history behind it, so many like races and championships. It’s amazing to be a part of us.
“I thought that it was 50 percent of my dream,” he said. “One of the dreams was to come here to the U.S. once you are in the U.S. you want to be more and you want to be competitive, and to be competitive I wanted to be part of Chip.
“I actually introduced myself to Chip at the Indy 500 because I wanted to be part of that team. I saw the spirit of the team, just because of the years I was following. And yeah, to be part of Chip Ganassi is 50 percent of another dream, which is to become a champion.
“But it’s just 50 percent. I have to do the job now.”
The job he did. The pressure was on but he says that he never felt it. He says it’s actually quite the opposite.
“That pressure has been with me since I was six years old and I started racing in go-karts. That pressure of winning, you have it every year. It’s not changing now. I feel less pressure now. I have the car to do it. I have the people to do it. It’s not the pressure of doing something crazy.
“The guy I’m going to race with, Scott Dixon, he won four races last year. They are giving me the resources to do it, so it’s up to me.
“The pressure of winning, that’s racing, and you have to win to be able to race another year. That’s been always with me, and it doesn’t change this year. If so, it makes it a bit easier just because it’s the first time in my life that I am in a big team.
“I think it’s the opportunity that you search since you start on karting,” said the Spaniard. “But then when you move up, that’s the dream. That’s the biggest dream. It’s amazing to have the opportunity this early.
“I think having a rookie year, that’s going to help a lot personally, mainly because I don’t have to worry like the basic things about how is the weekend schedule, like what do we have to do during a weekend, what’s the new tracks I have to be. I’m still going to have some new tracks to learn, but there’s going to be less than in 2020 for sure.
“I just think I’m a bit more prepared for sure. I have a better car. I have better data because now I have three teammates. Last year I had only one, so I have more information. One of them is a six-time INDYCAR champion, the other is a seven-time NASCAR champion, and then there’s Marcus and Tony, as well, depending on the race.”
This is really the best the 10 car has been since Franchitti was in it. Franchitti, is now in a advisory and coaching role with the team and sees first hand on how well Palou is doing.
“It’s great to see the 10 car having success again. It’s a lot of the same crew when we won our last championship in 2011, our last 500 in 2012. It’s nice to see them having that success again, the smile on their face.
“It was a tough time. A lot of the guys, whether Tony or Felix, it was tough to go up against Scott. Again, I know how difficult it is going up against Scott.
“I think Alex has done a tremendous job this year with that. Nice to see all the cars getting results.
“I think he’s worked so hard, him, the whole 10 car team. They’ve just really worked hard from the first race. One of our first conversations, Alex and I, Listen now, you’re now in a team that in the pit stops and the strategy, they’re going to help you to win races so you don’t have to worry about driving 105%. If you get in position to win a race, et cetera, et cetera. He shows up in Barber and wins. I’m like, Hmm, okay, he got that message loud and clear straightaway. He’s a fast learner.
“We thought he was good when we signed him. He’s even better than that. He’s a hard worker. Behind that very nice, polite exterior, he’s just tough as anything, man. His recovery in Indy after the crash, the way he came back from that, he’s impressive.
“We, me, all of us at Chip Ganassi Racing, are delighted he’s driving the No. 10 car.
“As Chip calls it: You’re either a Sunday driver or your not. I think with Alex we have a Sunday driver.”