The story of Alex Palou’s remarkable ascent to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship cannot be told without including former series driver Roger Yasukawa and his longtime friend Japanese businessman Kazumichi Goh.
Goh had been one of Yasukawa’s supporters in his climb to the INDYCAR SERIES in the early 2000s, but he had stepped away from the sport for the better part of a decade. Reinvigorated in the fall of 2018, Goh told Yasukawa of his interest in forming a Japanese Super GT team, and he hired five-time Indianapolis 500 starter Yasukawa as its sporting director.
Yasukawa’s first task was to assemble a list of potential drivers to hire. Palou’s name was one of the first he received.
“I had heard about him, but I didn’t know much about him,” Yasukawa said this week. “I asked around, and everybody spoke very highly of him from his GP3 and F3 days. It was clear he was fast.”
Then Yasukawa met Palou, then 21 years old. He was blown away by the Spaniard’s maturity and presence. Yasukawa described him as “neat and tidy,” possessing a rare level of preparedness for such a young man.
The combination of those personal traits and on-track performances – third in Japan’s F3 championship in 2017, seventh in European F3 in a 2018 season won by current Formula One rookie Mick Schumacher – made him first choice on Yasukawa’s list. They came to an agreement because Palou could pair his new ride with Nakajima Racing’s Super Formula team into a full return to Japan’s racing circles.
Palou nearly won the Super Formula title in 2019 and became its Rookie of the Year, but it was a midseason ride on Japan’s bullet train where the conversation turned to INDYCAR.
Yasukawa said Palou knew of his INDYCAR background – 40 starts with six teams over an eight-year period (2003-10) – but they had never discussed it. On the train, Palou said his goal was to reach the top form of U.S. open-wheel racing.
“That actually surprised me because with his background and being in a good situation with Honda of Japan, I thought he was aiming toward Formula One,” Yasukawa said. “I said I would be more than happy to help him get to where he wanted, but I recommended the first step would be to actually go to an INDYCAR race and preferably an oval.”
Yasukawa recommended the 2019 race at Texas Motor Speedway, which took place on an open weekend in Palou’s schedule. That set the wheels in motion, but again, Palou surprised Yasukawa.
“What I didn’t know was how much about INDYCAR he already knew,” he said. “We get there, and he knew every driver – not personally – but he knew the teams, the drivers and how they raced. That was impressive.
“Actually seeing the cars running and the drivers themselves, he was astonished by what it takes to win in this series. But he was excited to see it live, and he knew he could step into that car and do well.”
One of their first meetings was with Dale Coyne, who as a driver in the 1990s had Goh as a sponsor on his car. Palou’s connection to Goh was enough for Coyne to suggest a test later in the season at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which turned out to be a memorable session.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the story, but Alex performed superbly that day,” Yasukawa said. “That was the start of the journey to INDYCAR.”
Interestingly, Yasukawa’s suggestion of traveling to Texas Motor Speedway had stirred emotions within Palou. One of his favorite race weekends had been a 2017 trip to Circuit of The Americas, where he finished fifth and second in a World Series Formula V8 3.5 Series doubleheader. That explains why when Palou joined Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh for the 2020 INDYCAR season, he moved to Austin rather than the Chicago area, where the team is based, or Indianapolis.
That ride on Japan’s bullet train also illustrated the significance of Yasukawa’s counsel. He stressed the importance of timing in a driver’s career, and he astutely predicted that INDYCAR was approaching a transition period with several drivers soon turning 40. In fact, three such drivers – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Will Power – won races this season, while 40-somethings Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan, among them, have limited opportunities in the series in 2022.
“Two years ago I was already anticipating some change in generation of drivers, and I think that’s what we’ve seen this year already,” Yasukawa said. “The timing of that, and joining (Chip Ganassi Racing), both came faster than what I was thinking, but I knew it was all about timing for Alex.”
Palou did his part, too, impressing many in the INDYCAR paddock by finishing third as a rookie in Road America’s first race of 2020 and qualifying third the next day, and then qualifying seventh for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in August. It was during that first oval race at IMS that Palou boldly asked team owner Chip Ganassi, “What does it take to drive for you?”
Ganassi’s response: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Palou’s opportunity to be considered to drive Ganassi’s No. 10 NTT DATA Honda came when Felix Rosenqvist began leaning toward moving to Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. Ganassi and his team’s managing director, Chip Hull, put Palou on the short list to fill the seat, eventually hiring him. But even Ganassi has said he still wasn’t convinced of Palou during the preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park.
“All four (team) cars were there,” Ganassi said of his team. “(Palou) ended up quickest, and we were like, ‘Jeez.’ But we were trying a lot of things, and you never know at a test on a particular day, time of the day, tires, whatever. You always find some rationalization for why a guy was fast or wasn’t fast.
“We kind of just took it with a grain of salt.”
Then came the season-opening race at Barber, where Palou posted the fastest lap in the first practice for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Ganassi shrugged it off.
“We said, ‘OK, great, that’s nice, but we have qualifying, a race, plenty of talent around the paddock,’” he said.
Palou responded by qualifying third and winning the race.
“He had Will Power and Dixon breathing down his neck the whole day,” Ganassi said. “He showed there that he could stand the pressure. He could win. He didn’t put a wheel wrong all day.”
Fifteen races later, the winner of a season-high three races became the first Spaniard and the sixth Ganassi driver to win an INDYCAR championship. CGR’s other champs: Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Dixon. Hefty company, for sure, and it should be noted that Palou is the first Ganassi driver since Franchitti in 2011 to outscore Dixon in points in a season.
“I think he brings a lot of that type of Japanese mentality to the team, which a lot of us find refreshing,” Ganassi said. “He brought a certain fortitude, I would say, that you see in that part of the world.”
Yasukawa had seen it almost from the moment he met Palou.
“The kid was barely 21 years old at the time, and it was how he handled everything – signing agreements, getting to the track, being ready and preparing himself as a race car driver,” Yasukawa said. “He’s tidy and prepared, and everything you see about him is that way. For example, his hair is always perfect, and it all was confirmed to me when I went to his apartment in Indianapolis earlier this year. He keeps everything neat and clean, and to me, he’s a no-maintenance driver.
“He showed his performance last year at Road America and showing up at Indy and being good on the ovals, but there were still a lot of unknowns (entering 2021). Could he be a driver to compete for wins and ultimately the title? Needless to say, he’s proven to be more than capable, and hopefully Chip agrees he made a good decision.”