Alex Palou basks in IndyCar championship afterglow with Dale Jr., Daniel Craig face time

Alex Palou Daniel Craig
Greg Doherty/Getty Images

CONCORD, N.C. – The receiving line on a recent jaunt to Charlotte for NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Craig and dozens of autograph-seeking fans at the Roval.

But the start of his North Carolina field trip — in the Harry and Izzy’s restaurant at the Indianapolis airport — yielded another telling sign the first IndyCar title by a Spaniard was gaining traction two weeks into the reign.

“Probably every day since (the season finale at) Long Beach, I got recognized by three, four or five people, and it’s been great,” Palou told NBC Sports in a Sunday morning interview at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he attended his first NASCAR Cup race. “But I didn’t expect that someone at the airport preparing our food would recognize me, and then all the servers were saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have fried chicken today!’ So they knew also my background, not only that I’m somebody new that just won the championship.

“That’s amazing. I like it. I think that means that they’d like to know me a bit more. That’s what it’s all about. IndyCar, it’s not huge on media, which is a bit of a shame. We have great personalities. We have so many different drivers from different teams and different countries, it would be amazing if people would know more about them. It’s not going to change from one day to the other that suddenly we can have lots more time on TV and share the stories. But I think it’s growing, and it’s good that we see it at a small restaurant at the airport. It just started, right? So better than nothing.”

It’s easy to see how his winner’s tradition of a fried chicken meal after every checkered flag has become widespread knowledge. The laps he made in a “Chicken Limo” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were the buzziest part of Palou’s championship afterglow — until the whirlwind weekend in the Charlotte area (with longtime girlfriend Esther Valle as his traveling companion).

Palou, 24, got a guided tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, attended a Pitbull concert near Charlotte Motor Speedway and was the featured guest on the popular Dale Jr. Download podcast.

During a garage tour (where he drew constant attention and congratulations from fans), Palou met with several NASCAR personalities, including president Steve Phelps and seven-time champion icon Richard Petty (“They all said they want Jimmie (Johnson) back here; I said we’re keeping Jimmie,” Palou said with a laugh about his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate).

But of course, the highlight was a brief meeting with Craig, the honorary starter of Sunday’s Roval race who was promoting his final turn as James Bond in the famous movie franchise. A vintage car collector buff, Craig seemed to realize whom Palou was after being told of his IndyCar connection.

It was the latest example of how life had been “perfect” for Palou since Long Beach, where he finished fourth to clinch the championship on the heels of a runner-up at Laguna Seca and a victory at Portland – three consecutive tracks where he was making his debut while championship rivals Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon had experience.

“We had the opportunity to fight for a championship, and I wanted it so bad, and all the team wanted it so bad,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we got it, so I knew that Portland was going to be difficult for us because Pato won there in the Indy Lights championship, so he knew the track. We tested with him. He was faster than us. I didn’t know the track, but we made the pole and were able to be successful.”

Portland came after a two-race swoon dropped Palou from a 40-point lead to second in the standings – and brought some seven-time championship counsel from Johnson.

“He told me after the Indy road course when we had the engine failure, he said that because once you have an issue and are in a bad situation, it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ ” Palou said. “Then you think that maybe you have to do something else on track and off track and prepare differently. And I actually thought, ‘Oh man, we just lost this, I can not lose anymore. Let’s try and do something different.’ He said no, no. Just be yourself. That’s the best way. As soon as you start preparing things differently to what you’ve been doing, then that’s when bad things happen.

“It means that I just work the same way as I’ve been doing since the start of the season. It’s just a small bit of advice that he told me, but it goes a long way because it’s a super big thing.”

Next up on the Palou Victory Tour is a return to his home country of Spain for much of November. The Barcelona native also plans to “return a big house in the middle of the mountains” to bring in him family to celebrate before returning to Indianapolis in early December for offseason meetings and a physical.

But he also will make the promotional rounds in Spain’s capital of Madrid. After being miffed that he felt undercovered by Spanish media outlets in his Indy 500 debut last year, Palou proudly tweeted about his IndyCar championship prominently featured on the front page of MARCA, a major Spanish sports daily newspaper that mainly focuses on soccer. He also joked about bumping a headline on two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso – the country’s primary racing hero — inside the paper.

“I think I’ve always been speaking bad about media in Spain, which I still do” said Palou, whose preseason prediction came true that he would win this year before more publicized Spanish drivers Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. (who remain winless in F1 2021). “But they are trying their best. So it’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s getting better. So yeah, I’ll try to take advantage of it, because I think it’s crazy we have the opportunity to talk more about IndyCar and the championship itself. And now that we’ve won, obviously about ourselves, too.

“It was amazing to see it on the Monday after Long Beach. You could see it was us and then (Lewis) Hamilton on the small side with the soccer. I actually put it on Twitter myself just because man, I didn’t expect that. That’s huge for Spain. Because it’s tough to follow a sport that it’s a different time zone. The other part of the world, and that you can not really follow it on TV. But for a newspaper like that to put it on the cover, it was huge.”

Palou is hoping to follow it up with another title in 2022, which is why his offseason regimen of simulator work and testing already is in full swing for his second season at Ganassi.

“That’s the good thing about having a year with the same team with the same group of people,” he said. “I know exactly what I need to improve. Hopefully it’s going to be enough to get the second (championship), or to fight for a second one. I think it will be. I know we have lots of places where we need to improve as a team and as a driver. Hopefully next year it’s going to be even better, and we can fight for the Indy 500 and the championship.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”