If Alex Palou learned one thing of great value during the offseason, it was to listen to his new Chip Ganassi Racing crew chief. Among the most respected team members on pit lane, Ricky Davis gave Palou a task with the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda that sounded crazy at the time. After driving into victory lane on Sunday, maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all.
“I remember that one of the first days he told me, ‘Alex, you cannot win all the races this season unless you win the first one,’” he said. “And I was like, “Yeah, Ricky, I know, but maybe we can take it easy on the first one, right?’ And he said, ‘No, we’ve got to go for the win on the first one, on the second one. We have to go for the win all year.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I got it.’”
Palou got it after qualifying third and leading 56 of 90 laps at Barber Motorsports Park, heading the majority of the field that opted for a two-stop pit strategy, and never flinching as traffic delays and mounting pressure from Team Penske’s Will Power added complexity during his run to the checkered flag
“It was an amazing weekend, because everything went so smooth,” he said. “It was one of those days [where] whatever you do, everything goes well. And we got that day, and it was on the first race. I had the feeling this weekend when we started that we had such a good car. You can see three [CGR] cars in the Fast Six… in IndyCar, that’s not easy to do.
“In the warm-up I felt super-good on the long run, and I was like, man, I have a chance today. So we kept it simple. We tried to avoid mistakes. We tried to just to have a clean race and a good first race to start the season. And we were a bit lucky and good with the strategy.”
Palou shares a trait found with CGR’s six-time champion Scott Dixon that fits the blue-collar team. Try and get the 24-year-old to talk about his achievements, and his nature is to turn the conversation towards the men and women who made it possible for him to earn a debut win for CGR.
“They give me the tools,” he said. “I just tried to do the job every lap. I was thinking about the next corner all the time, the next session all the time. And it worked, because I had good data from Scott, good stuff from my teammates, from the team. Everything was there to make it happen.”
On top of pleasing Ganassi, managing director Mike Hull, driver coach Dario Franchitti, and all who supported his rapid ascension within the team, Palou felt rewarded by winning for Davis, his No. 10 car crew, and his race engineer, CGR technical director Julian Robertson.
“To be honest, it’s always tough to enter a new team,” he said. “You have to have a lot of confidence on the team you work with. The engineers, the mechanics, the chief; everybody. But I felt so comfortable here since day one with Ricky. At the beginning, Ricky was just trying to teach me everything. And I was like, ‘Yeah, man. You need to teach me everything because I just want to learn from you guys.’ I don’t know how many championships he’s won, but he won a lot more than me. So I need to learn from all of them.
“And then Julian, he’s been awesome with me. He works so much. He gets so deep into the car. He wants to make sure I have the best car ever. And he gave me that car. So I’m sure he was super happy. I think everybody from the team was super happy.”
On a wider scale, Palou’s maiden NTT IndyCar Series win should give hope to every kid throughout the world competing in a feeder series that doesn’t fit the established norms. While those who saw Palou race in the Japanese Super Formula knew he was something extraordinary, he did not land in IndyCar after years of training under the spotlight in F2 or Indy Lights, which suggests there’s other serious talents like Palou waiting to be discovered.
“I’ve been super lucky in life where I always had somebody external to the family that gave me the opportunity to go one step more, to go to single-seaters, to go to Japan, to go from Japan to the U.S., and then to go to the biggest team in IndyCar,” he said. “So I’ve been through a lot of challenges and struggles like everybody else, but you just got to keep working and that’s it. That’s the only way you get to do everything you can. It’s not easy to do everything you can, but that’s only thing you can do. You cannot control all the other drivers, the sponsors, or the teams. You can only focus on yourself and give always 100 percent.”
Speaking of focus and effort, Palou learned another valuable lesson after joining CGR courtesy of teammates Dixon and fellow newcomer Jimmie Johnson who’ve amassed more than a dozen combined championships.
“It has pushed me a lot to have teammates like Scott Dixon and Jimmie, seeing them working so much,” he admitted. “I thought I was working a lot then, and I was working a lot, but they were working a little bit more than me. And I was like, ‘Man, these guys are champions and they are working more than me. How’s that possible? I’m not a champion. I’m not even a winner.’ So yeah, got to keep working, and everything is possible.”
In the fast-paced world of IndyCar where the season opens with four races in three weeks, its newest first-time winner heads into the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with another new distinction of having a target on his back at every round.
“Now we know what to expect,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. There’s five tracks that I’ve never been (after COVID cut some venues from his rookie season). So I’m going to struggle a bit more there. I’m going to study a bit more there. We going to try and go all-out this year, and we have the tools to make it happen.”