Take a peek at the results since the relationship between Alex Palou and his Chip Ganassi Racing team took a dramatic turn leading into the June 17 race at Toronto, and it would be hard to spot an event where the contractual dispute and subsequent lawsuit with CGR have become a distraction for the NTT IndyCar Series’ reigning champion.
A maturity that belies the Spaniard’s age of 25 and a special brand of mental toughness has helped Palou to navigate the mess he’s created for himself by signing with both CGR and McLaren Racing for 2023.
After two months of off-track theatrics and the ongoing legal dispute, which is currently subject to mediation between both sides, Palou has shown that he’s near-unshakable when it’s time to focus on driving. We got a first look at his steeliness last year at World Wide Technology Raceway when he was taken out in the race and lost the championship lead; he responded at the next round by securing pole position, the victory, and the lead in the Drivers’ standings which he never relinquished.
However, in Palou’s estimation, the need and ability to handle non-racing dramas is a new area of growth.
“Last year, it was a different story,” he told RACER as he heads into Saturday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway holding fifth in the championship. “We had a great run. And yeah, we had some ups and downs, like at [WWTR]. But I was really sure that we were capable of fighting for the title until the last round. So there was nothing we could have done differently there; that’s why I was super pissed off [at WWTR]. I mean, everybody gets pissed off when things don’t go as you plan, but there was nothing to gain back from getting mad at somebody else.
“So yeah, this year, obviously is different. We’re still up there in the championship, which is good. But obviously, all the drama around me, it’s not been ideal. I just talked to myself and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m really fortunate to have the opportunity to drive in IndyCar. Not only to drive in IndyCar, [but to] be part of the championship [fight], but also to drive for one of the best teams.’
“So I said, ‘Hey, let’s just drive.’ That’s the easy part. And all the rest will itself sort out with time. It’s been a small distraction, for sure. It’s not been the best. But to be honest, I think we’ve been able to just focus on the racing, and it’s been good so far. It’s not been amazing, the results we’ve had, but we’ve kept our championship hopes alive. That’s a good place to be.”
Compartmentalizing his on- and off-track lives is where Palou has made great strides as a professional athlete. To bring perspective to the strange scenario of driving for a team while simultaneously being sued by that team, he’s pictured himself as being unemployed. It’s an interesting parallel to draw considering it is among the possibilities that could come from mediation if he’s granted a release by CGR but is barred from driving for another team for a duration of six to 12 months or more.
“I think I’m lucky that my issues are not as big as some other people’s issues,” Palou said. “So yeah, there’s a lot of drama, and big noise, but it’s not super-bad. It could be a lot worse; I’m super lucky I have all my family around me, they support me, I have my wife, so the big stuff, it’s all good. And then I just put myself in the worst situation that could possibly be–me sitting and watching IndyCars from home and, and seeing somebody that has an opportunity to win the championship and getting distracted by whatever he’s gonna do next year or [in] the future.
“So if I was at home, and there was another guy looking at my situation, I would be [like], ‘Come on man, just drive, win races.’ As I said, everything we will be alright in some time. I don’t know if it’s going to take two days, two hours or two months, but it’s going to be alright. And hopefully everybody’s going to be as happy as possible. I just drive, man. It’s easy to just steer, brake and hit the gas.”
As mediation continues this week, it’s time for Palou to turn his full attention back to racing as practice gets under way on Friday at WWTR. He knows a strong performance will bolster his chances of holding onto the IndyCar crown and if the race goes sideways, his odds of earning consecutive titles will become imposingly long. It’s the last two races of the season, a pair of road courses in Oregon and California, where he’s pinned his hopes for an end-of-year rally.
“We are only 33 points back at this point, so I don’t think we are far away and I don’t think we have to go crazy. But we need to win,” he said of a winless streak that dates to last September. “Maybe [WWTR is] not the best opportunity for us, to be honest. Never got a podium on an oval outside of the Indy 500. But then Portland, we won there last year and finished second in Laguna.
“So I cannot wait for the last two races. I’m going to Gateway to get my best oval finish this year, hopefully a podium, to keep the championship alive again and have a shot. But we need to win. It’s not like we can play it safe and just be like, ‘Hey, let’s just finish the race.’ We need to push.”
More mental fortitude will be necessary as the lawyers for both parties try to find a solution that will appease Palou and CGR as they carry on with meetings outside of a courtroom. There’s a championship to try and win in the coming weeks and the possibility of knowing where future chapters of his life and career will be written. To get the best from himself, more compartmentalization will be required.
“To be honest, I think about it because we are working on it,” he said. “There’s obviously progression they’ve made. So it’s not like I don’t think about it and just wait until the last race of the year. But at the same time, we’re so close. And it’s so important to finish this year strong that I don’t really think too much, because it’s not in my hands now.
“It’s not like I can press a button and just know exactly what are we going to be doing next year. So yeah, I’m not really thinking too much more than I should, and I’m ready for the future.”