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!”

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.

Alex Palou kisses the Astor Cup after winning the 2021 IndyCar championship (James Black/IndyCar).

“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.”

Alex Palou delivered team owner Chip Ganassi his 14th IndyCar championship (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

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.

Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson became good friends in their first year together at Chip Ganassi Racing (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

“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.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”