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Alex Palou talks Indy 500 pole, why he loves going 234 mph and a Chip Ganassi surprise

Chip Ganassi Racing star Alex Palou puts the pedal to the metal, earning pole position at the 107th Indianapolis 500 in record-setting fashion and kicking off a big celebration with his team.

INDIANAPOLIS – On the pole position of an oval race for the first time in his life, Alex Palou will start the Indy 500 knowing that his lead will be short-lived.

For the past three years, the first lap of the Indianapolis 500 has ended without the pole-sitter in first. Last year, Palou started second and led the first seven laps after passing Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon. The same fate befell Dixon in 2021, and Marco Andretti never led a lap despite starting first in 2020.

So Palou will be tempering his expectations for taking the green flag in the 107th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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“I’m going to control the first lap with the first two corners, because it’s almost guaranteed that I’m not going to lead the first lap,” Palou told NBC Sports with a chuckle about winning the pole. “So I’m ready for not to lead the first lap! And hopefully we can lead the second one.”

Ideally, all that really matters is the last one – but in a 500-mile race with several pit stops, untimely caution flags and varying strategies among 33 cars, there are so many variables beyond what drivers and teams are able to control.

That was driven home last year when Palou led 42 of the first 68 laps but then got caught out while leading because of an untimely caution (he went to the rear when forced to stop for fuel with the pits closed). His No. 10 Dallara-Honda was unable to make a full recovery and finished 10th despite leading the second-most laps (behind Dixon, who led a race-high 95 of 200 before a costly speeding penalty in the pits).

“We’ll try to avoid having those big issues and losing that much,” Palou said. “Dropping from first to last, that’s a big risk that we took. We don’t want that to happen again obviously. I don’t think it’s going to change much whatever position we are.

“There’s so many things out of your control in this race. If it was another race, and I was on pole, I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to control and do this and that!’ Not this one. You can control your first run for sure, which is really important to have a slower race that way that you don’t have to rush to get into the top 10 and save fuel at the end or do crazy stuff to overtake. But as soon as the first pit stop is going, we are losing control of everything.

“We have the best starting position. We know at some point we’re going to drop a little bit, and the idea is to drop as less as possible to try to have clean air and be as fast as possible.”

Especially in the fastest field in Indy 500 history. Palou’s four-lap average of 234.217 mph shattered the previous pole mark at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and paced a front row with three average speeds above 234 mph for the first time ever.

With engines returned to normal levels (a turbo boost for qualifying added 100 horsepower), Palou had the fourth-fastest speed in practice Monday while making 53 laps around the 2.5-mile oval (shortly after a photo shoot for being on the front row).

Though warm conditions were suboptimal for overtaking and measuring how cars handled in traffic, his team was able to try several adjustments ahead of the final two-hour practice Friday.

“We lost some time in the garage testing that stuff, but we wanted to get some ideas out of the way before Carb Day,” he said. “No surprises. We knew the Penskes are quite strong. Arrow McLaren is as strong as they were in qualifying. Rinus (VeeKay) didn’t run much (Monday), but he’s one of the strongest cars in traffic. Scott (Dixon) is really strong.

“It’s going to be tight, man, as always. You start naming like 15 cars that look super strong in traffic. We’re starting on the right spot, so hopefully that helps.”

The last pole-sitter to lead the first lap of the Indy 500 was Simon Pagenaud, who would win the 2019 race and complete a sweep of May after also winning the GMR Grand Prix.

Having captured the pole and a GMR GP victory in the past 10 days, Palou is two-thirds of the way toward matching Pagenaud’s feat, and the points leader top-ranked driver in NBC Sports’ NTT IndyCar power rankings has all the momentum entering Sunday at the Brickyard.

In an exclusive conversation with NBC Sports after practice Monday, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series champion discussed his record-setting pole run, his attention in the Spanish media and the surprisingly amusing way he learned about teammate Marcus Ericsson’s contract stalemate with team owner Chip Ganassi (this interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity):

Q: Ganassi team manager Barry Wanser asked you on the radio before your pole laps if you were ready to go really fast, and you said you were ready to have fun. When did averaging 234 mph over four laps become fun for a driver who never raced ovals until three years ago?

Palou: “Honestly, it’s always been fun. It was the first time that I was really able to enjoy it as much as (Sunday) and be able to enjoy trimming and going for it. Last year, I didn’t really go for it. I didn’t push everything that we had on qualifying. But (Sunday) we for sure did, and it was pretty … it felt amazing, honestly. I felt confident with the car. I was ready to trim the car and go as fast as possible. That radio message basically meant we were going to go out aggressive trimming, and that it was up to me to finish the run.”

Q: Was that the reason for your exuberant celebration? Because the team put it all on the line with the setup and coaching you through the run, and they executed perfectly, and then they handed it to you and you executed perfectly?

Palou: Absolutely. That’s why the emotion was so high. Because we were not in control of qualifying. We actually were lacking a bit of speed. Don’t get me wrong: Our car was super quick. But we knew in perfect conditions with everyone doing the perfect job, we were not the best car. So we had to risk it. We had to go aggressive. We knew we were the guys with the least amount of downforce on the Fast Six. And we had to go for it. I knew the worst-case scenario was starting sixth, and that was really good anyway. So I think that’s why the emotion was so high because we were not expecting it because we had to wait for three other cars to finish qualifying and look at them lap by lap until they were done. It was pretty cool.”

Q: So if your car wasn’t the best in perfect conditions, who was? Were you expecting an Arrow McLaren car on pole?

Palou: “I was expecting Arrow McLaren being really strong with Felix (Rosenqvist) especially. And then Rinus, we knew. He’s started on the first row three times in a row. He’s good here. He has a good car. And we knew they had speed. And then honestly, the Foyt cars looked so good on no tow in the morning session. And we were a bit scared, honestly. We were like I don’t know if we can do 234.9 three laps in a row. And in fact, we were not able to do that. I don’t know if they lost some speed or didn’t really get everything right. But yeah, we were a bit worried. Well, not worried, but we knew they were a bit better than this.”

Q; Was there any apprehension of being at the max when you had the qualifying crash at Indy in 2021. Was that in the back of your mind?

Palou: “No, not at all. You learn from that, but that was not at all on our radar.”

Q: During a pole run, you’re in the cockpit making all these adjustments with your bars and fuel maps and weight jackers while turning the wheel at 234 mph. How do you get comfortable doing that? You can practice it, but you can’t practice it on the absolute edge of going for the pole. Do you ever worry about hitting the wrong buttons or getting the adjustments wrong?

Palou: “We can practice a little bit, but it’s never the same thing because of the speed, and the gears are in different places depending on the wind. You don’t know which adjustments you need to do. But I love it. I love that it’s so difficult that we have to make so many adjustments. Weight jacker, bars. We have the engine maps that they are calling, and you can’t predict it. Depending on the temperature, they might have you turn to this map on Turn 1 or Turn 3. So you are waiting for them to call it. I love it. Yeah, it’s tough to say how we get ready for that. I guess just by practicing a little bit, and then you need to go for it.”

Q: It’s so much multitasking. Can you compare it to anything outside of driving when you’re doing more than one thing at once?

Palou: “I don’t think so. Especially the amount of focus that we have during those four laps. I don’t experience it outside of the car, and I love it. It’s only myself, those maps, the weight jacker and the track. And then the radio when they talk. It’s a level of concentration that I never get anywhere else.”

Q: You made your Indy 500 debut in 2020, and you noted how much more attention Fernando Alonso was getting than you in Spain. Since then, you’ve won the championship and now are on the Indy 500 pole. Are you gaining more notice now in your native country? Are you doing more Spanish media this week?

Palou (laughing): “Yeah, but nothing crazy honestly. Almost all the Spanish media was here (in 2020) for (Alonso). There’s no one here (this time). We have two or three places that they follow all the season. And I really love that they give us some air time or some time in their newspaper. But there’s no big following, honestly. I know that. I understand that. It was because of Fernando. It was not because of a Spanish driver being in the Indy 500. They didn’t care about that. They just cared about what Fernando was doing. Yeah, it is what it is. That didn’t really improve much. We are doing everything we can to try and can get their attention, but honestly, I don’t really care. The people that love racing, they know what’s going on. The people are cheering a lot for me is the American market, and they just love it.”

Q: If you win, maybe then Barcelona will take notice.

A: “Maybe they might notice a little bit. Hopefully. We’ll have to find out.”

2023 Indianapolis 500 - Pace Car

2023 Indianapolis 500 - Pace Car

Chris Owens

Q: After the pole, team owner Chip Ganassi screamed, “I’m so proud of you” a few times during your celebration. He’s always proud of his drivers, but that seemed a special moment for him. Did he say anything more to you about it since then?

Palou: “Not really, but we had a lot of talking today with the front row photo shoot. I think that comes from him giving me the opportunity after only one year in IndyCar with Dale Coyne and seeing that we were able to get the pole. That’s why he was so proud. It was my first oval pole, which I think that’s pretty special and pretty spectacular for me. And maybe that’s why we were so emotional at that moment.”

Q: Defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson has been lobbying for a new deal from Chip. What’s the dynamic now at Ganassi? Last year, there was a lot of attention on you during a contract dispute with the team. Now, we are asking a lot of questions to Chip and Marcus about where things stand on their next deal. It was a topic in the team’s Fast Friday news conference last week. What’s that been like from your perspective of being on the periphery instead of in the thick of the talks this year?

Palou: “Honestly, I found out during the press conference (about Marcus’ contract), so I didn’t know. Honestly! My family came last week for the GMR (Grand Prix), and I was just focused on them and on track and nothing around it. And honestly, I didn’t know anything going on. If there’s a video, you will see my face like ‘What?’ And I looked at Jenna (Fryer of the Associated Press), and Jenna was like yeah, yeah. And I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I was surprised, honestly, because I’d been a bit out of the loop. I don’t know what to say.

“So after the press conference, I was like, ‘Oh wow, so what’s going on?’ And then I found out it’s from a long time that the thing is cooking, but honestly on the team, I cannot feel it. I don’t think there’s any issues there. I’m 100 percent sure that CGR wants to keep him because he earns it. He did a fantastic job, not just on the 500, all the rest of the races. He did an amazing job, and I’m sure that he wants to stay.

“So honestly, I don’t know much information. I tried to ask Marcus a little bit as a friend. Obviously, he told me that it’s all private, and that he doesn’t want it to get anywhere near similar to what we had last year, so I don’t really know the details. I know they are in discussions, and hopefully they make it work, and we’ll see a successful Marcus and CGR.”