INDIANAPOLIS – Pole positions don’t come often for Alex Palou, nor does the unrestrained display of unbridled emotion that accompanied his record Sunday for the 107th Indy 500.
After waiting through more than 10 minutes of withstanding three nail-biting and razor-close runs to knock his No. 10 Dallara-Honda off the top of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scoring pylon, Palou erupted with a few dozen members of Chip Ganassi Racing who were clad in matching blue and white uniforms.
The normally reserved Spaniard let loose a guttural roar while exchanging bear hugs with anyone within range, including team owner Chip Ganassi (who now has eight Indianpolis 500 poles, including the past three).
QUALIFYING RESULTS: Overall l Fast Six For the Pole
STARTING LINEUP: The grid for May 28 race on NBC
“I’m so proud of you,” Ganassi said to the driver whom he stopped speaking to for weeks last year while embroiled in a contract dispute. “I’m so proud of you.”
Palou stood briefly on the sidepod of his supersonic ride, thrust his arms skyward and then launched himself into the arms of another group of team members before hugging his wife, Esther.
Besides the obvious – starting first in the world’s biggest race — was there something else that made this celebration (which went nearly 90 seconds at full volume) even more emphatic than when after he clinched the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship?
“No, we just know that this time doesn’t come very often,” Palou said. “We couldn’t celebrate last year, and we don’t know if we’re going to be able to celebrate next week.
“When there’s chances like that, especially nowadays in IndyCar , you have to celebrate. You could see it on everybody; it was not just me. I lost my voice, which maybe it was too much, but I’m Spanish.
POLE FOR THE 107th RUNNING OF THE INDIANAPOLIS 500! 🚀@AmericanLegion @CGRTeams #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/drExpKGMW6
— Alex Palou Montalbo (@AlexPalou) May 21, 2023
“You could see on every mechanic, every engineer, even Julian, my engineer. He’s really quiet. When we win, he’s normally like yeah, that was a good race, good job. But he was super excited today. It means a lot. It’s a big deal. It’s the pole for the Indy 500.
“It’s not the win for the race, but it’s as best we could do today.”
Of course, there was some context for Palou, 26, being unusually demonstrative:
–It’s only his second IndyCar pole in 53 starts.
–It’s the first on an oval for Palou, who raced exclusively on road and street courses before coming to the United States three years ago.
–It was redemptive after qualifying second to teammate Scott Dixon at the Brickyard last year.
–And it came on the heels of his GMR Grand Prix victory last week in the on the IMS road course. The last two drivers to win the GMR GP and Indy 500 pole also made it a clean sweep with an Indy 500 victory (Will Power in 2018, Simon Pagenaud in 2019).
“That means a lot,” Palou said. “Gets my confidence pretty high. Yeah, maybe that’s the reasons why.”
Leading the fastest front row and field in Indy 500 history also had to be exhilarating. The speed of 234.217 mph set an Indy 500 pole record and was the second-fastest four-lap average in Indy 500 history.
But while speed thrills at IMS, it also can dash the dreams of those who grew up trying to conquer the 2.5-mile oval.
That was the story for Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (the team his father founded) in the Last Chance Qualifying session that preceded the six-driver shootout for the pole.
With four drivers vying for the final three spots in the 33-car field, Rahal was eliminated while RLL teammates Christian Lundgaard and Jack Harvey eked into Row 11 with Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing.
Harvey turned a four-lap average at 229.166 mph on the final run of the hourlong session, barely bumping out Rahal (229.158) after time expired. It was a sickeningly familiar feeling for team owner Bobby Rahal, who missed the 1993 Indy 500 as the reigning series champion (and seven years after his 1986 victory at Indy).
“As I said to these guys, you just got to be positive,” Graham Rahal told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider in a voice quavering with emotion. “Everybody puts a lot into this. We just came up short.
“This place, it doesn’t come easy, but it doesn’t just happen, and we weren’t good enough. We were the slowest of our cars just on pure pace all week. And unfortunately that happens, but you’ve got be positive. You’ve got to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat. There’s next year.
“I knew from the start we were in trouble.”
The starting lineup for the 107th #Indy500!
Tune in Sunday at 11a ET on @nbc and @peacock. pic.twitter.com/eK68quF7gC
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 21, 2023
Though he had every reason to celebrate after a heroic effort of three attempts in less than an hour to claw his way into the field, an emotionally drained Harvey almost seemed dejected after eliminating his teammate.
“I don’t even know what to say, honestly,” Harvey told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “The hope was all three (RLL) cars could make it. I hate that it was us who bumped Graham out, but I’m grateful to be in the race. This is such a privilege to be able to do this in the first place.
“It’s bittersweet. You don’t want to knock your teammate out. An amazing feeling and awful feeling at the same time.”
Palou could relate in a way when trying to describe a celebration that he ranked among the top three of his racing career – and perhaps surpassing any of five IndyCar victories except his first.
“It doesn’t mean more than a win or a win doesn’t mean more than this. I think they’re very separate,” Palou said. “This place is so special. We’ve been here for more than two weeks, working on this race car for more than a year.
“There’s so much effort that goes into this — not only from myself, the engineering team, the mechanics, everybody back at the shop — that it means a lot.
“It doesn’t feel better or worse than a win. It just feels different.”