Alex Palou returns to the scene of his greatest racing accomplishment at Long Beach


LONG BEACH, Calif. – Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing has yet to win the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, but it is the scene of his greatest racing accomplishment.

It was on Sept. 26, 2021 in Long Beach (which was moved to the season finale in a one-off slot because of the pandemic), and Palou was locked in a fierce battle with Pato O’Ward for the season championship.

Palou’s title was really never in doubt. O’Ward crashed on Lap 43, and Palou simply had to stay within range of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden to win the title.

Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport won the race, Newgarden was second and Palou clinched the championship with a fourth-place finish, one position behind teammate Scott Dixon. Last year, Palou earned his first podium here in his second start.

Ah, the memories of Long Beach that give the driver of the No. 10 Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing a reason to smile.

LONG BEACH PRIMERDetails, schedules for watching IndyCar this weekend

“I have a lot of good memories,” Palou told NBC Sports before NTT IndyCar Series practice Friday at Long Beach. “My favorite place, honestly.

“I have really good memories from other places, but getting the championship here was amazing. The atmosphere here is always good. It’s Friday morning, and it’s tough to walk around without getting stopped with all the people that we have.

“It’s one of our best events on the calendar.”

Just two races into the season, Palou is off to a solid start — ranked fifth in the title standings entering Sunday’s 48th Grand Prix of Long Beach and trailing O’Ward by 22 points.

Palou finished eighth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 5 and third April 2 in the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.

“We are happy with the start of the season,” Palou said. “We were quite strong at St. Pete and super strong at Texas. We just started. Obviously, we wanted to win the first two races. There have been better guys than us, but we are super happy.

“We had good options at St. Pete and a podium finish at Texas.

“It feels good.”

It also feels good for Palou to be back in good standing at Chip Ganassi Racing after a self-inflicted contract dispute with the team midway through last season.

On the same day that Chip Ganassi Racing announced the exercising of an option year on its contract with the driver from Spain, Palou revealed that he had signed a contract with McLaren Racing for the 2023 season.

But team owner Chip Ganassi would not release Palou from his contract. The legal dispute went to mediation before an agreement was reached between Ganassi and Palou that the driver would return to the team in 2023.

The saga finally came to a close on Sept. 14, three days after Palou dominated in winning the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

“It was tough,” Palou reflected on the turmoil from last season. “It was tough personally. It was tough for the team and the crew. It was tough and awkward for the media as well. It is good that now everything is clear, and we can focus on racing.

“I’m excited to have a more relaxed year.”

Palou was allowed to test the McLaren Formula One car during the free practice at the U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) on Oct. 21, 2022.

“It’s fast, it’s insane,” Palou said after that test. “Obviously, I was lucky to test before the 2021 car, so that already gave me the feeling of an F1 car. But then here, obviously, you have the traffic, you don’t want to impede anybody else. And you have a car that is not yours.

“I was trying to take care of the car, obviously not trying to get in trouble with people that are going to race this weekend. So yeah, this track, I think it’s pretty awesome for an F1 car, especially sector one super-fast. And it was beautiful to drive.”

Palou’s dreams of becoming a Formula One driver remain his dream, but for 2023 he is fully committed to the NTT IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing and winning another championship.

It may be early, but Palou anticipates at least one-third of the current NTT IndyCar Series starting line is capable of challenging for the championship in 2023.

“It’s still too early, but man, IndyCar, if you go through each team and the drivers and the equipment they have, there are 10 drivers who can easily fight for the championship, and there will be some guys that we don’t expect,” Palou said. “Like my case in 2021 and Scott McLaughlin in 2022. Nobody expected it.

“It’s a tough competition. We need to get as many wins as possible and score as many points as possible each weekend.

“We cannot give up any race weekend.”

The standard bearer when it comes to championships is teammate Scott Dixon, a six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion who shows no signs of slowing down any time soon at 42 (even while being voted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America).

“Oh man, you are telling me,” Palou said. “I have to share the same trailer with him.

“It’s incredible, even when he struggles, he is there, and he makes it work.

“I can tell you he’s not slowing down. That’s not happening anytime soon. I don’t know if that is ever going to happen. He will decide when to stop on his terms.

“It’s amazing to have him here, but it’s a pain to share a team with him because he always makes it super hard.

“Honestly, we learn so much from him. He is pushing the team and all his teammates.”

A win in Sunday’s 48th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach could help solidify Palou’s early season charge at a championship. But racing on the tight 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street course over 85 laps (167.28 miles) is a tremendous challenge.

“It’s tough, but it is a race that opens up a lot of different strategies, but it’s a race that rewards pure speed,” Palou explained. “That’s racing, but at this race, if you are fast, you can pull away and go.

“If you are fast and starting behind like Colton Herta in 2021, he started 14th and won, you can do it without crazy strategy.

“It’s important to start up front but have a good car that we can push every lap.

“It takes a lot of confidence. On the street courses, you have to have a lot of confidence with your car and getting to the edge without clipping the walls. It’s tough, man, it’s a tough course.

“We have to push every single lap.”

Because speed is rewarded at Long Beach, that makes Saturday’s qualifications that culminate with the Firestone Fast Six one of the more important qualification sessions of the season.

“It’s very important,” Palou said. “For me, when you start up front on a street course, you get away from the crazy strategies and overtakes that go crazy from behind. Hopefully, we can start up front. We started P7 at St. Pete and P7 at Texas, so hopefully we get into the Fast Six on Saturday.”

Although passing can be tight, Palou believes Turns 1, 5 and 10 are the best places to make passes in the race. He also enjoys “The Fountain” turn because it has become an iconic part of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“The fountain, when you drive, it’s amazing to be around,” Palou said. “That is what makes this place so special.”

The most special aspect of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, however, is its long history and tradition.

It is the longest-running major street race in North America and has become the second-biggest race on the IndyCar schedule behind only the Indianapolis 500.

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach began in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race. Brian Redman of Great Britain was the winner.

It became the United States Grand Prix Formula One race in 1976 with Clay Regazzoni of Switzerland the winner. It reached iconic status in 1977 when Mario Andretti of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, gave the United States a victory on its home soil.

John Watson of Great Britain was the last driver to win the Formula One race at Long Beach in 1983. It joined the CART schedule in 1984, and Mario Andretti was the winner, starting a streak of four consecutive years that a driver named Andretti was the winner.

Mario won in 1984, ’85 and ’87. His son Michael won in 1986.

Al Unser Jr. of Albuquerque, New Mexico became “King of the Beach” when he won four consecutive Long Beach Grands Prix from 1988-91. He holds the record with six wins in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, including back-to-back victories in 1994-95.

Will Power won the Champ Car Series finale in the 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach as that series went out of business to allow its teams to merge into the former Indy Racing League that became today’s NTT IndyCar Series.

The race traditionally has been held in mid-April, but the COVID-19 pandemic moved Long Beach to the 2021 season finale and the location of Palou’s IndyCar championship celebration.

Palou is proud to have a special part of the history of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, even though he still is trying to win the famed and fabled event for the first time.

“It’s amazing,” Palou said. “I saw some videos from F1 laps here and it’s just amazing what they were able to do going uphill and having even faster corners with those cars that were heavier with no power steering. It’s insane.

“I’m happy to be part of it.”

When it comes to international acclaim, Palou has some competition in Spain.

Last week, fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm Rodriguez of Barrika won golf’s most famous tournament, The Masters at August National.

He became the fourth driver from Spain to win The Masters, joining Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia. He also joined Ballesteros and Olazabal as the only Spaniards to have won multiple majors in golf.

“He has done an incredible job,” Palou said of Rahm. “Even before that, he was already up there and doing amazing.

“Super happy to get another Spaniard doing really well.

“Honestly, The Masters is The Masters.”

And so far, Palou has become a “Master of Motorsports” winning the 2021 IndyCar Series Championship at one of the most iconic events in racing.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and six red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500