INDIANAPOLIS — Life is good right now for Alex Palou. Since he and boss Chip Ganassi mended fences, Palou has won 2 races, one by 30 seconds and another by 16.8006-seconds, in the last six overall events. He’s finished in the top eight in all six tries.
He won the last time out in the GMR Grand Prix two Saturday’s ago. Last Sunday, he won the pole for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Can he pull the rare May sweep this weekend?
Palou is a smart driver. He’s a sponge. He’s the definition of being a student of the game.
“Oh yeah, 100%,” Palou told me on Thursday about how much he studies past races and if he’s an analytical type drivers. “And that’s what I do between races in between years. So I love the sport. I love to analyze the sport. I don’t think I overanalyze it because I don’t want to get into the job of other people like the engineers stuff I don’t get into the setup stuff. Hey they do the work and I’m not an engineer, but I like to focus on the driving side and try and learn as much as possible.
“I think also the position I’m in with Ganassi and with three great teammates. I need to take advantage of that and and get as much information from them as possible. But I don’t do this as a job. I just love doing it and analyzing what could be a little bit better. And hopefully it’s enough for Sunday. Otherwise we’ll keep on analyzing and improving.”
He won the GMR Grand Prix because of the race morning warmup practice session.
At that time when he strapped into his No. 10 Dallara-Honda for the morning warmup practice session, the race plan was already tentatively in place. They were just going to use this 30 minute session to confirm it.
However, what they quickly learned swayed them another direction.
“Well, we were going to do a bigger gamble before warmup, which was starting on used reds,” Palou said.
That session showed he and his team that reds were going to react a lot differently this year compared to the past. See, in most years, the reds had minimal fall off. They were the preferred tires. This year, they weren’t.
So, they decided to start on fresh reds and then go blacks the rest of the way. They were the only ones up front that decided to start on the alternates. That confused them.
“We knew that since practice, honestly, that we wanted to start on reds. I was surprised that not other people at the front started on reds,” he admitted.
“For us it was clear. We were struggling a little bit more than some of the guys on used reds in the warmup. But still it’s not like they were amazing. We knew that we didn’t want to use used reds. That’s why we started on new alternates, try to get the lead, try to get a big gap, like two, three, four, seconds, then work on our pace on blacks.
“Once I saw the starting grid with the tires, we were like, Okay, we’re in a good place. Still, you have to do it. We knew we were on the right strategy for the 10 car, but you still had to do it on track.”
Palou more than did it on track. He was untouchable. He took over the lead for the final time on Lap 65 and never looked back in doing so.
“Amazing,” Palou said of having a car that good. “I mean, everything goes so well. The car feels how you want it to feel. Even though we had a lot of traffic by lap cars at the end on the last stint, yeah, we didn’t have too much, so we could run our pace.
“I think once you have your day that you’re comfortable with the car, it’s doable to do. Obviously those days don’t come too often here in INDYCAR. It’s so tight. With three, four pit stops, it’s tough to do.
“Yeah, glad that we made it today. A win is the same if you do it by 30 seconds or by 1/10th. Obviously feels better for myself, for the confidence. Yeah, a win is a win.”
Last Sunday, his pole was won due to learning how he lost it last year.
“Last year, we were really close, learned how we could go be more aggressive if we were in that position again, and lucky if we were in that position again today, we took it,” Palou said.
Palou last year, ran a four-lap average of 233.499 mph in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda. It was at the time the second fastest pole speed in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.
However, he knew though that it would only be short lived. While we were 5 of the 6 qualifiers in during last year’s thrilling Fast 12 Shootout, Palou also knew that his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Dixon was up next.
“There was not a lot of nerves,” Palou said after his run a year ago. “I knew he was going to get it. Everybody knew. He is the man here. It was like, okay. To be honest, Chip Ganassi Racing team had a great job having five cars in the Fast 12, four in the Fast 6.”
Dixon set a new pole record of 234.046 mph in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. Palou was right. He had nothing for him.
The Spaniard also said that if it was anyone other than Dixon being him, he’d have been more confident but when it’s the man dubbed the “Ice Man” he knew that he was now likely going to be starting on the Middle of Row 1 instead of the inside.
“I guess it would be different if there was another driver behind, but when it’s Scott Dixon, maybe you are a bit more scared,” Palou continued. “So obviously, seeing that number, it was amazing. I thought my four laps run were fast, but we were not fast enough, so, yeah, it’s okay.
“My car was really good. I think my best car was doing Fast 6, so I was super comfortable. I think I did everything I had. I kind of wish that Scott, knowing that he had already four pole laps here, he could have gave me one, but he doesn’t share much. We’ll try and get it next year.”
Boy did he ever. Palou went 235.131 mph on the opening lap of his Fast Six Shootout run and ended up at 234.217 mph which topped Dixon as the fastest pole speed ever now.
“Amazing. Last year we were really close,” he said after earning the pole for next Sunday’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). “It was really close last year. We lost it against Dixon, which he did an amazing four-lap run. This year we knew it was going to be even closer against these two guys. They were really fast all month.
“We went aggressive. It worked this time. Super proud.
“Been a good month of May so far.”
Does that learning process help him win on Sunday? He lost the 2021 races when he admitted Helio Castroneves took him to school. Last year, he was caught out by a caution during a pit cycle. Did he learn from those two years to do what he’s done this month already?
“Alex (Palou) was showing his game too early,” said Pagneuad. “No disrespect to him at all. He did amazing job, great race. Obviously he’s young, learning the draft and all that. It’s not easy on an oval of this size.
“I could see what Alex was doing. He was trying to find ways to keep Helio behind, but there were too many laps to go. Helio was just waiting in the back, keeping Pato behind, judging the timing. He knew exactly where he could get him, when he could get him. All of a sudden you saw him, he jumped at his throat like a tiger. That’s when the attack started. I believe it was 193, lap 193. I knew it was coming.
“I was waiting for Helio to do that because he disrupted the rhythm of the pack in front of me. That’s what helped me get Pato and maybe I could have gotten Palou quicker. It was very interesting to watch. Certainly there’s a lot to learn from that battle.”
Palou also notes that it gives him comfort that Simon Pagenaud in 2019 pulled off the Month of May sweep and he’s hopeful that he can too.
“Yeah, I mean, knowing that Simon did it in 19 means that we can also do it this year and accomplish it so hopefully we can make it happen,” he says. “It will mean the world to me right now if we can win.”
One thing that he does want to keep quiet is the conversion between miles-per-hour and kilometers-per-hour. The difference in numbers is quite mega. He said that for his moms health, he’d prefer she focuses on the mph number because all she knows is kph and it scares her when she hears those speeds.
“She doesn’t know that,” Palou joked when telling me about it. “That the translation from mph two kilometers, goes exponentially up because the other day when my dad we were talking and he asked something about the front straight, I said ‘Yeah, because when we turn it’s like two 393 miles, kilometers an hour.’ Then my mom turned and was like what? I was like, ‘No, it’s okay.’
“Like that. So yeah, to also my wife, as soon as I mentioned something in kilometers, she doesn’t like it. So I think they feel safe on being mph. So we’ll keep it that way. So they are not worried to keep an MPH right? Yeah, miles per hour because other ways. Yeah, I mean, it goes so high. Two kilometers.”
The reason we were even discussing this was because when he was a rookie here in 2020, he told me on Media Day that he took his mom down to pit exit to see some practice. She immediately got scared and went to the motorhome. Now that he baby boy is going 234 mph on a four-lap average, I was curious what he thoughts were now.
No matter what, she’ll be here on Sunday and sharing milk in victory lane no matter how fast Palou had to go to get there.