INDIANAPOLIS – One of the great things about this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is the emergence of rookie driver Alex Palou of Spain.
In a sense, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has been able to “say hello to Alex Palou.”
Let’s get to know Palou, the 23-year-old rookie driver for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh who will start seventh – on the inside of Row 3 – in the No. 55 Honda in Sunday’s “500” after running an impressive four-lap average of 229.676 mph last weekend in Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying.
“People in America think I’m just a kid that has a rich dad that wants to race, but that’s not the case,” said Palou, whose last name rhymes with hello. “I come from a really normal family, and we are really proud to be here. This is a dream for all of us. I know where I come from.
“Once we win some races, they will know about Alex Palou. The fans need to see some good results.”
Palou is one of two Spaniards in Sunday’s 500-Mile Race (1 p.m., NBC, Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 211, XM 205). The other is two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, who starts 26th in the No. 66 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
Surprisingly, Alonso is not a driver that Palou followed throughout his career.
“I was not really a Fernando fan,” Palou said. “I know he is one of the best drivers in the world, but I’ve never been like a kid watching Fernando. I don’t know why.”
Perhaps that is because Palou was laser-focused on his own racing career. It has taken him all over the world through various formulas, including Super Formula in Japan before arriving in the U.S. for his rookie NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
Now, Palou is on a team that gets positive results with a lower budget. Dale Coyne Racing makes a lot of happen with a little.
“Look at the trucks from the other teams to our team and the resources, as well,” Palou said. “We are a very tight and small team, but we are all together and push 110 percent. Being here in the top seven is amazing for a small team like us.”
Palou is from Spain, but he chose Austin, Texas, as his U.S. base. He is outside the INDYCAR hub of Indianapolis and loves what Austin has to offer.
“It’s the first city I visited in the U.S., and I really loved it there,” Palou said. “I like the food. I like the weather. I like the pickup trucks. That’s why I live in Austin.
“I would like to visit all of the states in the United States, but that won’t happen this year because of COVID-19. So, I’m working on training.”
When Palou arrived in the U.S., his learning time in INDYCAR was halted because of the near-nationwide shutdown due to COVID-19. He had never turned laps on an oval track until he arrived at Texas Motor Speedway before the Genesys 300 on June 6, the first race of the delayed 2020 season.
Palou’s breakthrough came in July at Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He qualified 14th and finished third in the first race of the REV Group Grand Prix doubleheader. The next day, he started third and finished seventh.
“This season has been really challenging for me as a rookie,” Palou said. “I had never been to Road America or Indianapolis and had no testing (and) didn’t know the team very well in the first few races. But we had track time at Road America, we had a good race car, and I had enough laps in the car to make some overtakes in the race.”
Palou’s engineer is Eric Cowdin, Tony Kanaan’s longtime engineer who helped guide the Brazilian to the 2013 “500” victory.
The young driver and the veteran engineer have formed a great working relationship, evident in Indy qualifying.
“Having Eric as my engineer, you can ask him all,” Palou said. “Every time I punch with him, I can feel his Indy 500 winner’s ring. He has a lot of experience. He's a really good guy. He knows how to make a really fast car here, not only him, but all the mechanics. It always gives you a lot of confidence having a guy that won the Indy 500 already.
“We are really comfortable and lucky to have a really good baseline. We have picked up this pace very quickly. I think that Dale was quite happy. But I think the final day is the 23rd (race day). We need to continue working.”