Alex Palou on track at Road America

ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – With just 75 minutes worth of practice, Alex Palou mastered a track some drivers can’t figure out in their entire career.

Palou, a 23-year-old NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie from Spain, started 14th and finished third in Race 1 of the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR Doubleheader at Road America.

When Palou joined Dale Coyne Racing Team Goh over the offseason, he arrived with an impressive resume from Europe. He was known to be fast on the racetrack.

At Road America, he also proved to be a fast learner with his first career podium as an INDYCAR driver in just his third career start.

“That was an awesome race for us,” Palou said after the very long day that began with a morning practice session at 11 a.m. Eastern time, followed by qualifications at 2:15 p.m. and wrapping up with a 5:10 p.m. green flag to start the 55-lap race. “It was a tough day today, my first time here at Road America. Having free practice, qualifying and the race in one day was tough.

“It was hard starting 14th, but we were lucky today. We had a really strong car. I could overtake some of the guys on the first two laps, and then I had the pace to overtake when I had clean air. We lost some spots on the first two pit stops, but the last pit stop, the guys were amazing, and I was P4 after that stop.”

Palou was stunningly good on the restarts in the race, especially late in the contest when he was running fourth when the green flag waved on Lap 45. Palou’s Honda got a nice charge down the long frontstraight and passed Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Honda for third place. But when Dalton Kellett went into the gravel trap in Turn 14, it brought out another quick yellow flag.

The race was restarted with eight laps to go, and Palou used the same daring move to pass Hunter-Reay for third. He set his sights on Will Power’s No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet in second place.

Palou came close a few times in the battle for second, before finishing third for the best finish of his young career.

“We overtook Ryan two times, so that was a really nice race for us,” Palou said. “It’s the potential that I have. We knew at the beginning; the team was on it. The problem was throwing me into a race having just 75 minutes of practice when I have never been to the tracks, so it’s really tough to learn these tracks in such a short period of practice time.

“It’s been really tough. We did P5 in free practice, but in qualifications I had a mistake on pit lane and had to come again for a penalty. That is why we started so far in the back.

“Finishing P3 is going to be good for me and my confidence. I know the crew has a lot of confidence for me and the team. The car was really strong.”

There’s an old saying that goes, “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” That may be the case with Palou, because he doesn’t know that rookies generally don’t finish on the podium in their first race at the demanding 4.014-mile, 14-turn Road America road course.

He gets to do it again Sunday morning with qualifications beginning at 9 a.m. (ET, NBC Sports Gold) followed by the race at noon (ET, NBC).

Five days later, Palou will hit the short oval for the first time in his career at Iowa Speedway for another doubleheader beginning next Friday night and Saturday night.

“It’s going to be an interesting day Sunday, tough at Iowa, as well, but as soon as we get to Mid-Ohio, we should be back to where we need to be,” Palou said.

Palou is living up to his impressive resume, but with such limited practice and testing because of COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdown, his “seat time” has been limited. But after the first test session at Circuit of the America’s (COTA) in February, he was confident the team had a fast car.

The only thing he was missing was practice.

“To be honest, I thought if we had enough practices, we would be good leading into Indy,” Palou said. “But the problem is we have no practices. This is my fifth or sixth day in the car, and we can’t ask for miracles when I have 75 minutes of practice. I have to learn the track and get the balance of the car the way I want.

“I don’t think we are there yet. Even with the really good result today, things went really good for us. We are getting there. We are getting more comfortable; we are getting quicker and hopefully we will be there soon.”