In his first season for Chip Ganassi Racing and second in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, Alex Palou sits atop the championship thanks in large part to his secret weapon, Dario Franchitti.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner and four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Franchitti – with two of those “500” wins and three series titles with Chip Ganassi Racing – is now a driver coach for the Ganassi team. He has imparted his abundant knowledge and wisdom to the newest Ganassi driver, Palou, who joined the team before this season to drive the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda.
“It's super good, like having somebody that's been so successful, that he's able to see what the drivers feel and also what the engineers need to know from the driver,” Palou said. “So, yeah, it's been super fun working with Dario.””
While Palou is quick to acknowledge the impact of working with a legend, Franchitti has thrown all the credit back at the 24-year-old driver.
“I think he's worked so hard, him, the whole 10 car team,” Franchitti said. “We thought he was good when we signed him. He's even better than that. He's a hard worker. Behind that very nice, polite exterior, he's just tough as anything, man. His recovery in Indy after the crash, the way he came back from that, he's impressive.”
But the story between these two goes beyond just this season. Palou may not be on the Ganassi team if it wasn’t for Franchitti.
Let’s set the scene. Last year in Palou’s first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Franchitti also was there, attending his first race of the pandemic-shortened season.
While Franchitti had noticed Palou from watching the first few races, it was during practice at the Speedway that Palou had really caught his eye. Palou had impressed him enough for him to take the time to find the young driver and say hello.
Near the entrance of Gasoline Alley, Franchitti told Palou that he was doing a great job and to keep it up, to which the always polite Palou said he someday hoped to do a good enough job to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Then, the very next day, Palou introduced himself to Chip Ganassi. The rest is history.
“It was watching him at Indy, then watching what he did throughout the rest of the season that convinced me.” Franchitti said. “When the opportunity came up for somebody to go in the 10 car when Felix (Rosenqvist) decided to go to McLaren, it was like, ‘Oh, he's our guy.’”
“This kid's really, really good, man,” Franchitti recalled telling Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull the same day as his first exchange with Palou.
And Franchitti’s hunch was right, as Palou has been fantastic since joining a team as equipped and professional as Ganassi.
In 10 races, Palou has won twice and has eight top-10 finishes, with seven in the top-five. He is also fourth in the series with 108 laps led.
“It's been super fun joining Chip Ganassi Racing,” Palou said. “I think we had a good season so far, fighting for the races almost every weekend I would say, having some good results.”
Franchitti has made an undeniable impact on Palou, as he said he has helped shortcut some of Palou’s inexperience with his experience and give suggestions, but Franchitti said Palou also has skills that can’t be taught.
“You can help with experience and what works for you,” Franchitti said. “You have to have that mental toughness. Alex has got it. As Chip calls it, you're either a Sunday driver or you're not. I think with Alex we have a Sunday driver.”
Palou has handled the pressure of leading the NTT INDYCAR SERIES well since regaining the points lead with his second win of the season at the REV Group Grand Prix in late June at Road America.
Palou said he doesn’t have to think about points or positions because if he’s having good races and fighting to score podiums and deliver wins, he knows he will be able to fight for a championship.
“I think it's easier when you have a good team around you and you can just focus on every session, each session, doing the best you can,” Palou said. “I think it's quite easy to have a good mindset when everything's going good, like we have now.”
With six races left after the summer break, this dynamic duo's next challenge will be an entirely new one: the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on Sunday, Aug. 8 on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee.
While INDYCAR has raced in Nashville dating back to 2008 at the Nashville Superspeedway, this year, this new race will be held on a temporary street circuit in Nashville. The experience level is the same for every driver – none.
And while Palou does not have much experience in street racing, he thinks the inaugural race in Nashville will bring more of an advantage for himself than a disadvantage.
“This year I've been going to the new tracks for me, but they were known tracks for everybody else,” Palou said. “Here we'll all be in even circumstances, and I think it's going to be great.”
Challenges such as bumps, different surfaces, and a variety of corners that come with a street course will make practice sessions and having the car as close to dialed in when it comes off the truck incredibly important.
But Franchitti and the team at Chip Ganassi Racing have an advantage heading into Nashville that not many other teams do.
They are one of three teams with four drivers, including three in the top five of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
“Four that work together so well,” Franchitti said. “That's really a big bonus to gather information as quickly as possible in the limited practice you get.”
Palou, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, and Jimmie Johnson working alongside Ganassi, Franchitti and the rest of the Ganassi team create a massive collection of brain trust for every driver on the team to use.
And it will be a major factor for Palou as he prepares for INDYCAR’s return to defend his lead in the championship.
“We need to win some more,” Palou said. “I don't think anybody won a championship only winning two races, so we need to win some more races and score some more podiums.”