Ryan: New IndyCar champion Alex Palou proves nice guys can finish first in racing
LONG BEACH, California – Alex Palou had been crowned a first-time IndyCar champion for less than an hour, but the mob scene outside the winner’s circle seemed he’d been king for years.
“Clear a path! Clear a path!” security guards shouted while trying to usher the Chip Ganassi Racing driver through about two dozen fans demanding selfies and autographs.
The always polite Palou naturally obliged.
“Happy birthday!” he gleefully said as requested for a fan’s camera video before being swept off onto a golf cart that whizzed off through the paddock.
On his way to the media center after his title-clinching fourth place in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Palou tossed two signed hats into the cheering crowd as several young fans ran after him waving their arms. A woman in a New York Yankees hat briefly was overcome with boy band-esque emotions, “Oh my God, oh my God! I touched him!”
The new @IndyCar champion was mobbed by fans after leaving the @GPLongBeach winner’s circle. After a path finally was cleared to a golf cart, @AlexPalou tossed a few autographed hats into the cheering crowds in the paddock on his ride to the media center. pic.twitter.com/NbB5GBRp6M— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) September 26, 2021
Having showed up in the top level of U.S. single-seater racing virtually on a whim last year (after a surprise call from team owner Dale Coyne), Palou, 24, might be well unknown to most Americans – but early indications are IndyCar fans very quickly are liking what they see.
That might not necessarily translate to transcendence for the series’ first Spanish-born champion, who struggled as a 2020 rookie for mainstream acceptance even in his own country (which still has echoes of Fernandomania 16 years after its first Formula One champion).
There is little bombast with the agreeable and always smiling Palou. He doesn’t shun the spotlight, but he also doesn’t demand it. He is friendly to a fault but lacks the brooding charisma or the irresistible magnetism of some more famous peers.
To put it bluntly, Palou is just a nice guy.
Maybe too nice, as Scott Dixon sometimes has joked.
But according to another wise and highly accomplished Chip Ganassi Racing teammate (who also has proved it with multiple titles), nice guys can succeed in racing – especially when they are as highly adaptable and extremely talented as Palou.
“One of the things that I’ve tried to reinforce to Alex is just to be himself,” said Jimmie Johnson, who learned something about the importance of being earnest while winning seven NASCAR Cup Series championships.
“I think that’s a mistake that many make is to think you need to do it differently or be someone else. Or intimidate when you’re not that intimidating personality. Or be nice when you’re really a dick. Whatever it might be.
“That’s what I keep saying to him is be you. Whatever you’re doing is working. It’s not about anything more or less. Just stay the course and be you.”
Embracing his understated, humble and pleasant personality certainly worked for Palou in joining an IndyCar powerhouse in his second season. But so did just being extremely quick from the green flag in preseason testing (he paced Ganassi’s at Barber Motorsports Park and then won the season opener there a few months later).
“The many layers that he puts into preparation every week, I’ve never seen that before,” said Johnson, who became a bit of a mentor to his new teammate but also got plenty in exchange with video analysis and tips from Palou on road courses and home simulator development.
“I thought in my generation I had some new wrinkles to be prepared for a race. But his level of preparation I’ve not seen before. Then you throw in the natural talent.”
The most impressive part of Palou’s second IndyCar season (and first with Ganassi) was how mistake-free it was. With eight podiums, he finished in the top seven in 12 of 16 races, and the other four included an engine failure and getting crashed by another driver.
His worst moment was a hard crash in Indy 500 qualifying, but he rebounded to start sixth and finish second without losing any nerve or speed.
“I was really surprised that it didn’t affect him much,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “We were all quite taken aback. He was right back to speed when he got in the car. That surprised us a lot.”
Johnson said the Indy crash was “really the first point for me to say, ‘Wow, he’s got it all together.’ … The fact that amongst the pressure and the speed and competition, he has the feel and understanding of his car and how to help lead the team, it’s truly just been extremely impressive to me.”
In his trademark humility, Palou had a more self-critical assessment of his Year 2 weaknesses.
“What do I need to improve? Everything,” he said. “I need to go faster. I’m not the fastest. I need to try and do everything better. I think there’s not one only thing this I’m missing. I think there’s a lot of things that I can just bring up. With experience it will come next year.”
In the meantime, we’ll continue to get glimpses of what makes the affable Spaniard tick.
After three hours of postrace media obligations, Palou still was wearing his blue-and-white NTT Data-emblazoned firesuit late Sunday afternoon as he left the track and walked across Ocean Boulevard, waving his arms as cars honked and passers-by gawked and cheered.
He entered the lobby of the Westin hotel to a standing ovation from a large Ganassi contingent dining in the lounge – an authentic representation of the impression Palou made on the organization.
“I don’t think you’ll find a nicer person, and it is great to see that nice guys win,” six-time series champion Scott Dixon told NBC Sports of working with Palou in 2021. “I think I’m a nice guy, too. But in adverse situations, people can get pretty ticked off and see that they’re grumpy. He always wears a smile, so I think it’s refreshing to see, honestly. As we’ve seen, it’s not hindered him in any way.”
Teammate Marcus Ericsson believes having an ever-pleasant disposition helps Palou, and the Swede hopes that others will see it as validation of his own approach.
“He’s a great driver, but he’s also a great person,” Ericsson said. “I think the thing with Alex is he’s super humble and hard-working, and that’s cool to see. I think it’s great because it shows you can be a nice guy and still be a killer on the track.
“People say that I’m too nice many times, but I think it shows what Alex is doing this year. You don’t have to be an idiot to be winning championships. I think that’s great to see. It’s one thing to be a nice guy outside, but on track, you need to be that killer instinct, and I think that’s what Alex has got, and he’s shown that this year.
“He has that balance of being very nice and humble outside the track. And then when he jumps in the car, he gets the game face on and delivers. So for me, that’s the best type of driver.”
One of the rare times we’ve seen Palou close to being miffed was during his rookie season. At the Brickyard last August, he mildly grumbled about being overlooked by Spanish media that were focused on Alonso over his Indy 500 debut (a wrong that seems to have been corrected in the headlines Sunday).
The last time Palou was mad?
“Uhhh, I don’t remember.”
How are you always happy?
“Well, why should I be in a bad mood?”
Well, maybe if things didn’t go your way?
“Still, it’s not going to help.”
Munching on S’mores Pop Tarts and planning a trip to the famous Roscoe’s House of Chicken N’ Waffles (for his traditional fried chicken winner’s meal, which happened Monday), Palou never tired of the interviews that ran for hours Sunday in multiple languages.
Even as the questions inevitably grew repetitive, Palou dished out compliments to reporters (“you’ve been really good with me, and I appreciate that.”) and reveled in an offseason media tour that was only beginning.
“Thank you so much everybody,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure this year. Hopefully I see you more next year.”
Sounds nice, Alex.