At the time of his first crowning as an IndyCar series champion in 2021, Alex Palou was a bright new star who rocketed from anonymity to American open-wheel racing’s mountain top. Two years later, after a season of utter domination in which he won more races than any driver in 2023, Palou sealed and delivered his second championship for Chip Ganassi Racing, which has elevated the smiley kid from Spain who loves coffee and fried chicken — and not as a combo, thankfully — to the lofty distinction of being the best of IndyCar’s next generation.
Since he joined Ganassi’s team, Palou has captured nine wins and 24 podium finishes in three seasons of work. Those nine victories also match the number of wins captured by the Arrow McLaren team, which he was meant to join, during its 22 years of existence. In fact, Palou has amassed more wins in his brief IndyCar career than half of the 10 full-time teams that compete in the series. Let that one marinate for a moment.
Among the 27 pilots on the grid, Palou was IndyCar’s fastest driver in 2023, earning the top average starting grid position of 6.00 across 17 races. He lives for the fight that follows qualifying, though, where his stunning race-day performances this season earned him five victories and 10 podiums — and he led 11 races — all of which went unmatched. For the first time since 2007, an IndyCar driver clinched the title before the final race; Palou produced a crushing lead in the standings that allowed him and his No. 10 Honda crew to celebrate with one round left to go.
Possibly the most impressive feat of Palou’s championship run was his finishing record, where his worst result during those 17 contests was a pair of eighths. Only one other driver in IndyCar history, California’s Harry Hartz, finished eighth or better across an entire IndyCar season of 17 races or more, and that took place 101 years ago.
These gaudy statistics are another driving force behind the notion that Palou is something truly special. By the numbers, Palou just authored one of IndyCar’s greatest beatdowns of the modern era, but that doesn’t mean his closest rivals share the same opinion.
If Palou were an NFL quarterback, the 26-year-old would be hailed by some as an excellent “game manager” in the same belittling way two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning was often dismissed during his career. To others, he’s the closest thing IndyCar has to Patrick Mahomes, the young face of the sport who has earned two titles by age 27.
The drivers Palou has mollywhopped can’t decide whether he’s more Manning or Mahomes. Mexico’s Pato O’Ward, IndyCar’s most popular star who drives for Arrow McLaren and finished a distant fourth to Palou in the championship, leans toward Manning.
“I think he’s got a very good understanding of how to win a championship,” O’Ward said. “Other than him being good behind the wheel, and having a very good team, he’s in a team that will help him win races, so he doesn’t have to take a lot of risks. And I think that’s what ultimately has helped him, and he’s going to continue to help them. He will always be a contender.”
Veteran Graham Rahal, whose IndyCar career started as a teen in 2007, earned two pole positions for his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team on the way to finishing 15th in the championship. Like O’Ward, the 34-year-old respects Palou but isn’t ready to give him his flowers.
“I think he’s super level-headed and I don’t think highs and lows affect him very much,” the 34-year-old said. “And I think that’s why he’s done well sitting next to [Ganassi’s six-time champion] Scott Dixon, because if you think about that too much and think about who you’re in the room with him, there is a lot of pressure, but I don’t think it fazes Alex.
“He’s coming into a perfect scenario. He’s coming to Ganassi, which is a great team. Alex has certainly done the best job, but if you look at Ganassi as a team, you look at what it’s done for [2022 Indy 500 winner] Marcus [Ericsson’s] career, transformed his career. And Palou is a real steady-state guy. I mean, I’m not saying he’s a ‘system quarterback,’ but what I am saying is, ‘right place, right time.’ Maximizing the opportunity makes a big difference.”
Rahal made the argument that others have presented with Palou, and two-time Formula One world champion Max Verstappen, seven-time F1 champ Lewis Hamilton and fellow seven-timer Michael Schumacher. Take the Mercedes away from the Briton or shift Palou from Ganassi to a lesser team, and they wouldn’t be hailed as generational greats.
“If he went to another team, he wouldn’t succeed as much,” Rahal proposed. “But I don’t think Scott Dixon may have won all he’s won, or if [Team Penske’s] Josef Newgarden stays at Fisher Hartman Racing, or comes to us instead of Roger [Penske’s] team, is he a two-time champion?”
The same claim can be made with any elite athlete. Send a rookie Tom Brady from the New England Patriots to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he might be out of the league by his mid-20s instead of being the NFL’s GOAT. In every instance, though, the Verstappens and Bradys and Palous are the difference-makers, which kicks the legs out from under this odd perspective.
“He’s in a good opportunity with Chip, but at the same time, I think Alex is exceptional because he’s fast and has great race craft,” Rahal conceded. “And I think that’s what a lot of guys lack. And I’m not going to say names, but you could come up with a list of drivers that are fast, but on Sundays, can’t put it all together. That’s where I think Alex is really good.”
Josef Newgarden, the 2017 and 2019 IndyCar champion and winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500, sees the Mahomes in Palou.
“There’s always a lot of intricacies to it, right,” Newgarden said. “You’ve got to understand the landscape. It starts with how he’s had a great opportunity, but I would consider him one of the best drivers in the world. I think he’s very deserving. He’s a very fast driver. He’s very calculated. I think he’s very hard working. You can tell that he’s someone that is putting in the necessary time to maximize his capability. I think this is a culmination of what people are seeing. He’s doing a really good job.”
If there’s a blemish on Palou, it’s in his off-track dealings with teams, which has lowered the esteem in which he’s held by most of IndyCar’s paddock.
Another race win ✔️ Another championship ✔️
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 5, 2023
The grand and embarrassing contractual embattlements with Ganassi in 2022 — when Palou refused to accept the terms of his deal and signed with Arrow McLaren for 2023, which led to a lawsuit from Ganassi to enforce the contract and a countersuit filed by Palou’s now-former management team on his behalf — made for an ugly and strained relationship. Both sides eventually dropped their cases, and Palou was given a reconfigured agreement by Ganassi that would allow his exit for Arrow McLaren at the end of 2023.
In early August, though, with his second championship almost in his hands, Palou informed the winless Arrow McLaren team that he would not honor the contract he signed to leave Ganassi and drive for the McLaren organization led by Zak Brown in 2024. McLaren is now taking Palou to court in the U.K., where the famed English racing team could be awarded between $5 million and $25 million in damages, according to Racer.
For the second time in 13 months, the Spaniard has an angry team boss with an army of lawyers seeking damages that would take several lifetimes to pay if a judge rules against him. The joy of winning another championship is tempered by the legal and financial jeopardy he’s facing.
“I guess I like drama,” he said with a knowing smile last weekend at the season finale in Monterey.
That drama has also become a punchline among his rivals. Asked if he’d hire Palou as his agent, Rahal laughed and said, “No.” Colton Herta went one step further, saying, “F— no!” They envy his success, but not the boiling cauldron Palou places himself in on a regular basis.
Unimpressed by his behind-the-scenes behavior, a few drivers also joked about the $1 million Palou just earned for winning the IndyCar title and how he won’t see any of it because it’s likely headed McLaren’s way.
Take everything that Palou has created for himself after joining Ganassi, and there’s no reasonable argument to make that he isn’t centrally responsible for becoming a double champion.
Seated next to Dixon, and Ericsson, Palou has outperformed both with relative ease. Dixon is the undisputed best of his generation and one of IndyCar’s all-time greats, a benchmark that only Palou has beaten this decade in Ganassi’s internecine battles. The last time that happened, it was 2011 when a fellow legend by the name of Dario Franchitti outran Dixon by winning three straight championships for Ganassi.
There’s one final aspect of Palou’s incredible success with Ganassi that can’t be ignored: He wasn’t the first choice for the job.
Having lost Felix Rosenqvist — the preferred driver for the No. 10 Honda — to the rival Arrow McLaren team for 2021, Ganassi went searching for another up-and-coming driver to fill the vacancy created by the outgoing Swede. Although there were many possibilities that were explored, the first serious choice was an American named Santino Ferrucci, Palou’s teammate at Dale Coyne Racing.
Given a short negotiating window at the end of the 2020 season, Ferrucci tried his best to break free from Coyne, but the team refused to grant a release. Palou, who’d impressed Ganassi with a strong rookie performance at the Indianapolis 500, wasn’t tied to Coyne on a long-term deal. Thanks to Ferrucci’s inability to negotiate his way into free agency, Palou, who finished 16th in the championship, was signed for pennies on the dollar compared to the established stars in the series.
As the old sports adage goes, “The best ability is availability,” and in Palou, we’ve come to know him as a two-time champion because of his former team owner’s refusal to part ways with Ferrucci.
With Palou, there’s always more to the story. Impending fatherhood, legal troubles and chasing a third title are the next chapters to write. Spending life in the spotlight, and in the eye of the storm, has become the norm for IndyCar’s most complicated champion. He does indeed love drama.