Alex Palou

It has been more than 100 years since Tommy Milton became the first INDYCAR SERIES driver to win consecutive season championships and despite about a thousand drivers suiting up for series races over the years, only 16 season champions have held their standing the next year (four drivers did it more than once.

So, when Alex Palou, the champion of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ 2021 campaign, speaks of no additional pressure in the season that begins with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, history allows him some slack.

“We always have pressure, but I don’t think I have added pressure from last year,” said Palou, a 24-year-old Spaniard. “In fact, I would say I have even less.

“We already showed we’re capable of winning a championship, winning races and being up there (in contention each week). We just need to do it again.”

Because Dario Franchitti continues to be a regular in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock as an advisor to Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s easy to forget that it’s been more than a decade since he became the most recent driver to hoist the season trophy in consecutive seasons, and he three-peated (2009, 2010 and 2011). Scott Dixon has won six championships in his career, and he has never gone back-to-back. Neither has Josef Newgarden (two titles since 2017) nor Simon Pagenaud, Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay, single champions all over the past decade.

History also shows it takes an elite driver to win consecutive INDYCAR SERIES championships. Eleven of the 16 are also Indianapolis 500 winners, and one of those who didn’t win the “500” – Alex Zanardi – never got the chance to compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In other words, the odds of Palou repeating are not great, which allows him to relax and go racing – and that’s what he intends to do in Ganassi’s No. 10 NTT DATA Honda.

“It’s not that I’m relaxed,” he said. “Just winning one championship, it means (a lot) but it doesn’t mean a lot. You need to continue winning races and championships to still be valued as a champion.”

Last year, Palou became the first driver since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 to earn his first INDYCAR SERIES victory and his first season championship in the same year. Both won the first race of the season – Palou’s was at Barber Motorsports Park – and each scored three race wins in that season.

In 2001, Hornish was the singular focus of Panther Racing, whereas Palou had internal competition from Dixon (one race win) and Marcus Ericsson (two), with one-time series champion Tony Kanaan a threat to win any of the oval-track events. The combination of the latter led Chip Ganassi’s Indianapolis-based organization to finish first, fourth (Dixon) and sixth (Ericsson) in the season standings.

Palou’s drive to repeat figures to have those challengers, plus many others. Newgarden, Power and Pagenaud (now with Meyer Shank Racing) have won titles with Team Penske, and Newgarden made a late-season run at Palou last year to finish second. Pato O’Ward finished third in the standings and returns with Arrow McLaren SP, and Colton Herta was fifth with Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian and is a strong bet for his first title.

Palou also would do well to keep eyes on Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean of Andretti Autosport, Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Helio Castroneves of Meyer Shank Racing, and there could be a surprise as Palou was last year after spending 2020 with Dale Coyne Racing.

While 17 races will be contested over the next seven months, it’s worth noting that the past three champions have won the season-opening race. Sunday’s race in St. Petersburg is set for noon (ET) on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

To win a second title, Palou figures he needs to up his oval-track game, and that should come with experience. Difficult as it is to believe, he has only 10 circle-track starts in his 30-race career. He did, however, finish second to Castroneves in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“I have a long way to go … knowing how to race, getting the confidence once we get to a new or different track,” Palou said. “Yeah, ovals are a good part (to improve).

“Qualifying, I think, is another part. Starting more up front, getting one-lap speed should be a priority for us (this season). We’ve always been able – well, not always – but constantly able to be around the Fast Six or top 10 (in qualifying), which is great, but we’ve only got one pole position. Hopefully that’s going to improve and make our life easier during the races.”

Palou’s average starting position last year was 7.4, but that includes an NTT P1 Award at Portland International Raceway, where he promptly went to the back of the pack – with Dixon -- after going off course in the first turn. His average finish, including a win that day at Portland, was 7.3, the highest for a champion in the past six years.

All that aside, last year was last year, Palou said, and it has no bearing on the 17-race schedule in front of him.

“Brand new,” he said of the challenge. “We’re going to start everybody with zero points, with new people around us, new teams, new tracks.

“We’ve been working as if last year we lost it. I think we’ll be ready to try and fight again.”


Dario Franchitti (2009, 2010, 2011)

Sebastien Bourdais (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)

Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002)

Gil de Ferran (2000, 2001)

Alex Zanardi (1997, 1998)

Bobby Rahal (1986, 1987)

Rick Mears (1981, 1982)

Tom Sneva (1977, 1978)

Joe Leonard (1971, 1972)

Mario Andretti (1965, 1966)

A.J. Foyt (1963, 1964)

A.J. Foyt (1960, 1961)

Jimmy Bryan (1956, 1957)

Ted Horn (1946, 1947, 1948)

Rex Mays (1940, 1941)

Louis Meyer (1928, 1929)

Tommy Milton (1920, 1921)