Alex Palou on His Winding Path to Becoming IndyCar's Leading Man

alex palou, 2023 indycar champion
On Alex Palou: IndyCar's Leading ManIllustration by Stephen Omark

In the four years since moving from Japan's Super Formula to IndyCar, the 26-year-old Alex Palou has recorded nine wins, two championships, and two separate legal battles relating to contract disputes involving a scuttled potential move from Chip Ganassi Racing to Arrow McLaren. As a rookie in 2020, he scored just one podium for an unheralded team. In his fourth season, he has found almost unparalleled speed and put together the results to match. In a world where natural talent only gets you so far, Palou's ability to work with his team and handle pressure on track only begins to explain how he became great in the car. In a wide-ranging interview, Palou details that story and looks back on his first four years in America:

R&T: Starting from the beginning [of your time in America], you ran in Japan during the 2019 season. When did you find out that you were going to be racing in the U.S. the next year?

AP: "Very late, I think it was like, January or something. It was super late. There was still talks that maybe Sebastien Bourdais was going to keep on racing with that moment and I remember it was well past Christmas when I was thinking 'Should we still go back to Japan, am I going to get a ride in the US?' It was late."


R&T: How does the Japanese open wheel racing scene compare to Europe and America?

AP: "It's actually really fun, it's amazing, they have a lot of passion for motorsport that I didn't know. Because they have Honda, they have Toyota, they have Nissan, they have Mazda, they have a lot of people that are around the world of motorsport. It's such a small country, but so many people that they have a lot of fans. The races were really fun, obviously the bad part of it is that it's so small of a country that Super Formula was only eight rounds. It felt like it was a very small championship, although they have amazing cars and amazing manufacturers."

R&T: How did the deal to come to Coyne come together?

AP: "It was because of Honda's help, I was racing for Honda in Japan. Also Team Goh and Roger Yasukawa, who was a former IndyCar driver and team manager for Team Goh. Now he's my agent. In between all them, apparently Team Goh and Dale Coyne Racing had previously worked together at both Le Mans and in IndyCar, like, maybe 15, 20 years ago. They already knew each other and they were happy to make a deal together."

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R&T: There was a Road America race that first year where it seemed like out of nowhere you went from the new guy that's in the Coyne car to a prospect. What happened that weekend, when you finally felt that speed?

AP: "It was a double race. In the first race we went from 15th to 7th and we felt like kings. It was still my fourth race in IndyCar, so I felt like 'oh my god, this is amazing." And then the next day, I just had a lot more confidence in the car, with the series, with everything. We were able to drive to third, which felt more than like a win for us."

R&T: You moved to Ganassi after that season. When did that deal come together?

AP: "Again, quite late. It was a very odd year, because of COVID I didn't know if I was going to get a ride or not. I would like to tell you exactly the moment, I know there was some talk I didn't know about during that live moment between Roger [Yasukawa] and Ganassi. They were looking for a driver, but I know they were evaluating different options. It was not before the last race of the season, but it was not too late afterward. Somewhere around that time."

R&T: That first race in the Ganassi car, after just one year in the series you are suddenly moving to the team that won the most recent championship. The cars are the same, but there's a huge difference in difference in shock packages, setup, preparation history that they have with the car. Did you feel that all at once?

AP: "I felt that jumping into a Ganassi car was going to be like driving a space ship. Then I realized that it was just another IndyCar. It was just an amazing group of people working really hard, with a lot of tools and resources, to try and maximize everything they had, but it was the same car. That's why with Dale Coyne I was able to get into the Fast Nine at the Indy 500, get a podium, run up front for a couple of races. It's the same car, it's the same base, it's just, obviously, we had more engineers, the damper program that helps a lot. It's not like you jump in and it's amazing, but you have a lot more different options. When something goes wrong, it's easier to fix or easier to extract 100% of the car faster."

R&T: Early in that season, did you feel pressure to live up to the history of the team?

AP: "Yes and no. I know that when you drive for Ganassi, they are giving you everything to win and they expect you to win. I think that's the way it should be, I don't think it should be another way. I knew I had to deliver, but nobody asked me to win or to get any result in particular. I remember the first talks with Ganassi, they asked me what they thought was my goal or my target for that year. I said 'Learn about [Scott] Dixon. That was the only thing I could do, to learn as much as possible from Dixon, try and get the best out of me, but I didn't feel like I had pressure. It was more pressure that I thought I had to deliver on, not what they were expecting from me. But, honestly, when you're on a big team like that, you have to win."

R&T: That Indianapolis 500, when you were battling with Helio [Castroneves] to win, were you thinking about that pressure, what the win would mean for your future?

AP: "No, just the win. I remember when I was leading the first time, I was thinking 'oh my God, we're leading the Indy 500.' It's a big deal, especially because it was my first time leading an oval race, so I was thinking 'what do I do now? Do I wait for them, or do I just go? Do I save fuel, or do I go for it?' I went to radio and said 'What do you want me to do?' They said, just race, I thought 'alright.' It was not pressure, it was just unknown. What to do. You're watching on TV for a long time and when you're watching you hear the commentators say 'they don't want to lead, they want to save fuel.' That's when I started arguing within myself. Ultimately, it's just another race. I didn't want to feel pressure, I just wanted to win. The last 10 laps, it's only 10 laps and it's you and him. I just wanted to find ways, but I didn't have the experience and I didn't know what else I could do to win it.

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R&T: In the two Indianapolis 500s since, you led very early, fell back in the pit lane, and recovered. Did that experience up front help you with the recovery part of the job, a very different challenge?

AP: "It's very easy to run a really fast car up front, but the issue with running a really fast car in the back is that you've been practicing the full Month up front. That's what you expect and where you know you're going to start. So we were practicing all Month up front and yeah you drove a little bit in the back, but you hope you're never going to be in that position. When you drop to the back, the car doesn't feel great. There's actually slower cars that are better than your fast car, just because they're set up to be running there. We had to make some adjustments throughout the stints with wings and tire pressures, and just the way you drive is very different. I had to do it a little bit in 2020, not much in 21, I had to do it in 22, and I had to do it this year. You get a bit of experience, and that's the only thing you can do. Try to get to the front, hope for a late yellow, and get a chance to win the race at the end."

R&T: You and [fellow 2020 rookie] Rinus VeeKay have qualified in the top seven in all of the 500s you've run. Both of you have fallen back early in some of those races. He has never made it back into the top five, but you did this year. Is there a difference in approach?

AP: "I would say it's a combination of everything. I would say that I'm really lucky to have a team around that is able to give me the tools that I need, and also to put me, strategy-wise, in as best as possible a position. Once you are in that scenario, they come up with 'you need to go two laps longer,' 'we're going to pit here,' 'we're not going to pit here.' You need to have a lot of patience as well, you cannot give up just because we were running second or first and we're 30th. And had to drop back to the end this year because of Rinus [VeeKay], so it was not the best example.

R&T: Since Laguna Seca [in 2022], it seems like you have gone from being the driver able to take advantage of any situation on track to being the situation. You were the fastest on track so often. If you were in the lead, you were able to grow a five or 10 second gap. Last weekend at Laguna Seca, it was a 20 second gap. Is there something that has changed to unlock that pace?

AP: "Again, I would say it's a little bit of everything. My comfort level with IndyCar now is 10 times bigger than in 2020, or even [during a championship year] in 2021. There were so many tracks that I hadn't visited until that point; now, I know all the tracks, I know a lot more about the races, I know how to save fuel, I know when I have to save fuel, I know I can ask my team some stuff and they'll understand exactly what I mean. The confidence when I'm in the car is a lot bigger, but I would agree with you that if we're in the lead we normally drive away a little bit. Not always 30 seconds, but those three, four seconds that give you an option to do different strategies. It was a shame [on Sunday] that we could not execute because of a yellow. You couldn't do this without a fast car, either. Even if you're feeling super comfortable and super ready, if your car is slow, you can try but you're not going to make it happen."

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R&T: Next year, you're going to have a rookie teammate and a full-time second-year teammate running ovals for the first time. As a driver, have you had to bring along a younger teammate before?

AP: "No, but I don't think they need much. I'm happy to help as much as possible, but I think Linus has more races on ovals than I do. Even in a junior series, he has a lot of experience. Marcus obviously doesn't, but he'll be alright. And we have Scott [Dixon], so Scott is the leader of the team. Every time I finish a session, the first person I ask about the session is him because he's the man and I trust 101% of what he says about the car, the track, what he feels. He's still going to be the leader for those young guys, and for me."

R&T: There was a video during practice for the Indianapolis 500 this year where Marcus Armstrong, who only ran road courses this year, watched the cars go by this year with some visible awe on his face. Did you have that feeling the first time you saw that?

AP: "The first time I was at the Speedway, it was me in the car. I never got to see the cars from the outside. I've obviously seen the runs from inside, but I've never been outside the track and I don't want to visit that."

R&T: Something you'd rather not think about?

AP: "No. I know it's fast, that's enough. I don't need to see it."

R&T: During that Portland race in 2021, the race where you suddenly swung from second in the standings and left with a narrow lead that eventually resulted in a championship, the championship scenario changed so often and ultimately swung in your favor. In the car, did you know what was happening at the time?

AP: "I think we were second in the championship at the time and Pato was first. We started from pole, which was great, but we dropped to the back early and he moved to the front. I knew that if he was going to win the race it was going to be game over for us for the championship, but it was not to be. It worked out really well for us, obviously, and I knew that winning that race was going to put us in a really good spot for Long Beach. The championship was really tight at that point and I knew that having a great race there was going to mean a lot, especially knowing that it was going to be my first time going to Long Beach for the season finale. Fighting for the championship on a new track is not a great scenario, especially since Pato had already run there. And obviously [Josef] Newgarden and Dixon knew the track."

R&T: Did you knew what happened when Pato O'Ward spun early in that Long Beach race?

AP: "Yes, I knew it, but Newgarden was in the mix. He was leading at that time and, if he lead the most laps and won the race and we crashed, he had a chance to win it. You never know what can happen at an IndyCar race, and even less at a street course. I knew we were in a pretty good spot, but you can never allow yourself to be comfortable.

R&T: So you ran both of those races knowing the full championship implications in real time in the car?

AP: "Yeah, yeah. 100%. You always know, even if you don't think. I never look a lot at the championship. I keep track, but I never focus a lot on points until the last three or four races that you really need to pay attention to who you're racing with or who you're racing against. At that time, I knew exactly that if I finish sixth I'm okay, but if I finish seventh and he's up front that's really bad, so we did a lot of preparation and I think it's important because you know you need to go for that gap and overtake that spot that might lead to a championship or maybe you don't do that to save the race because it's not needed."

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Chris Graythen - Getty Images

R&T: Talking about the contract situation, what made you think it might be time to look elsewhere in 2022?

AP: "In '21, after the '21 championship, the door to try an F1 car opened up. I thought it was, and I still believe it is, a train that goes really fast and opens the door only slightly for you. You take it or you lose it. I didn't want to feel like I didn't take that chance or didn't take the chance to drive an F1 car and show what I would be capable of. I took it, we tested the old cars, we ran at COTA in '22 after the [IndyCar] season was done. I gave everything I had, showed what we could do, but a real door never opened up fully."

R&T: Do you feel like that offer was ever really on the table, for a full time race seat?

AP: "I don't think it's never fully on the table, it's either here or not here and it was not there. It was there to try the car, it was there to get the experience, and it was there to show what I could do in the car."

R&T: In a broader sense, do you feel like the ability for an IndyCar champion to move to that level is available on talent alone any more?

AP: "I wish it would be more. I don't think it is at the moment, but I think it is for different reasons. I don't think it's because they don't trust the level of skills we have in IndyCar, I think it's more about an age thing. Plus superlicense implications and track knowledge implications. If you take the champions in IndyCar, normally they are not young. As in young like Europe, F1 young. If you take Newgarden when he won his first championship he was 26. If you take him for an F1 ride, he has to learn all of the tracks, all of the tires, and how to drive an F1 car. He's going to be 27 and he's not going to have enough time to deliver. It goes the same for myself, I'm not 19. I'm 26, which is young, but it's not young for F1 standards to start. I understand, a little bit, why they don't take it, but I'm sure that's going to change soon. Hopefully, we'll see a [Colton] Herta or a future, whichever IndyCar driver, is going to show up and represent what IndyCar means. Because, honestly, I think that knowing the tracks and all that stuff, it's all just talk. If you're fast in a race car, you're fast everywhere. I say that more like being able to test an F1 car, it's great, it's fast, it's different. But it's still two pedals, wheels, and a steering wheel. I kind of understand why there's not many drivers crossing over, but I would relate it to not knowing all of the tracks, not being in the junior series there. When there's maybe an F1 team interested in Colton [Herta], he doesn't have the superlicense because he's been racing here. That's why I think we're going to have some trouble getting a young driver from IndyCar to F1.

But it's going to happen eventually, and I cannot wait for that, and for them to do very well."

R&T: On the other scale of prizes you can win from IndyCar, we saw Scott Dixon run Le Mans this year for Cadillac. It's kind of a strange situation, both Honda and Ganassi are your IndyCar partners, and GM is in IndyCar, and Andretti is a Honda team over there. If you were to race at Le Mans, do you know which of those two partners you would be going with?

AP: "I'm not going to comment on that. Because if I comment, two months later, maybe we'd be going another way."

R&T: Would you be interested, though?

AP: "Yes, 100%. I would love to, I would love to run Daytona and Le Mans. I did Daytona with Chip [Ganassi] and Cadillac in 2022 and it was great, an amazing experience. I would love to do Le Mans as well."

R&T: If a driver were to be in IndyCar right now, knowing that potentially there is an 11th team trying to join the grid in F1 with Cadillac as a partner, knowing that a team has just signed Honda as a future partner. Those two manufacturers have such a connection to IndyCar, does that help the path [from IndyCar to F1] right now?

AP: "Yes, but not much. If Andretti enters, I think maybe. He knows exactly what IndyCar is, he knows what kind of driver you need to be in order to be successful in IndyCar. He will value an IndyCar driver, and maybe another series driver, just because he knows from the inside. If that's not the case, and they cannot really get an entry there, it's going to be a lot tougher."

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R&T: Earlier this year, you put together the quickest single lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in decades. When you're actually in the car going 235 on a single qualifying lap at Indy, what does that feel like?

AP: "It's scary. It's very scary. When you're qualifying, you are at the limit of downforce. You don't know if it's going to stick or not. If it doesn't, there's big consequences like I had in 2021. If you crash, it's a big hit. You destroy the car, and your chances of winning the race the following week are very short because you just destroyed the car that the team has been working on for the past 10 months. So you are scared, but at the same time, it's the best feeling ever when you finish those four laps. The balance changes a lot from corner to corner, so you are continually thinking and trying to get ahead of what the balance is going to do next. You cannot get it to the point where it's too late and just understeer or oversteer. Those are the best four laps of the year for sure.

When they go well. When they go wrong, they are the worst four laps.

R&T: I just keep thinking of Herta [crashing in practice ahead of the] '22 race. It's not just the hit, it's what it does to your race and to your season.

AP: "It's a big hit, and it's not only the hit you get, it's the confidence you lose when you hit. Especially, for example, the one that Herta had or what I had, the driver doesn't make any mistake, apart from just not advancing that it's going to happen. You don't make a mistake like braking too late or hitting a kerb, it's just that the car loses the downforce. Trusting yourself again the next day, that what I'm feeling is right or wrong, is the worst thing. Because you don't trust yourself any more."

R&T: So it's a very different game from qualifying on a road course, even though you're trying to find limits either way

AP: "Yeah, on a road course, normally when we crash it's a mistake like 'I touched a crest a little bit and I spun.' Okay, I can avoid that, my sense is still great. Or I break too late, whatever, I tried too hard. In the 500, it's normally that the car just loses it. Then you don't know if you are feeling the car or not. That's why, normally, we struggle so much whenever we crash there."

While no official release has confirmed Palou's return to Chip Ganassi Racing just yet, both he and team owner Chip Ganassi have talked openly about his return to the seat next season. The 2024 IndyCar schedule is still unannounced, but it is expected to open with the March 10th Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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