Needing to See More

Update: Before we get into an IndyCar discussion, I have an update on my wife, Susan. Most of you know she was diagnosed with Stage-3 pancreatic cancer in July of 2020. After six months of grueling chemo, then surgery, then oral chemo and radiation; she is to undergo scans every three months for two years. Her first post-treatment scans were in August, just a few days before the Music City Grand Prix. Those scans were clear, allowing us to enjoy our hometown race weekend. It has now been three months, and Susan had her second round of scans this past Monday.

I am thrilled to announce that her Monday scans were completely clear again. Now we can enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas. Her next scans will be in early February. Only 20% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer make it a year, and Susan did that this past July. Only 8% survive beyond the five-year mark. We still have a ways to go on that, but having clear scans sixteen months past the original diagnosis is a great start. Thanks to everyone that have held Susan in their prayers the past year and a half. – GP

We are still a couple of weeks from Thanksgiving and we still have almost four months to go in the offseason, but is that too soon to start talking about the NTT IndyCar Series for next season? More specifically – will Alex Palou compete for the 2022 IndyCar championship, or was his 2021 campaign simply a fluke?

I heard Paul Tracy on Trackside last weekend, and he reminded me how Palou’s championship run came out of nowhere. Tracy described Palou’s time at Dale Coyne as OK, but nothing that made you think he would be the champion the following year.

Tracy noted that he was surprised when Palou was tabbed to drive the No. 10 car for Chip Ganassi. We have to remind ourselves that the only reason that ride was vacant was because Felix Rosenqvist voluntarily left Ganassi for the supposed greener pastures at Arrow McLaren SP. I’m not sure anyone was expecting Rosenqvist to contend for the title had he stayed with Ganassi, so it’s interesting to think of the ramifications that his decision to move to McLaren made on the 2021 championship.

Had Palou not moved on from Coyne, would there have been a place for Romain Grosjean at Coyne? Perhaps he could have gone to the No. 18 car that Ed Jones drove to a forgettable nineteenth place finish, but they probably would have preferred a fulltime driver in that car.

Like the angel, Clarence, in It’s a Wonderful Life points out – it’s funny how one person’s actions, touches the lives of so many others. Had Rosenqvist stayed put, Palou most likely would not have won the 2021 championship and Grosjean probably would not have had a platform to showcase his talents and land a top ride with Andretti Autosport for 2022.

Getting back to Palou, it seems like many think that now that he has suddenly earned his first IndyCar championship – he is now locked into the conversation for the next ten years or so. I hate to be the one to rain on everyone’s parade, but I’m not sold – not yet, anyway.

If you were to ask me to pick the winner of next year’s championship battle, I’m choosing between Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta – and not necessarily in that order. In fact, I would pick Alexander Rossi over Palou – and Rossi hasn’t won a race since June of 2019.

It’s not that I’m anti-Palou. It’s just that I’ve only seen a very small sample size from Palou. I need to see more, before I put him in the class with Dixon and Newgarden.

Right now, I would compare Alex Palou to Jimmy Vasser. In the year before he won his championship, Palou finished sixteenth in the championship for Dale Coyne. Two years before Vasser won his only championship in 1996, also with Chip Ganassi – Vasser drove for Jim Hayhoe and finished fifteenth. When Hayhoe-Cole Racing folded just before the 1995 season, Vasser took his STP sponsorship to Chip Ganassi, who reluctantly ran a second car alongside Brian Herta. Vasser finished eighth that season and still had not won an IndyCar race in his career.

1996 was a magical year for Vasser. Like Palou, he won the first race of the season. Unlike Palou, Vasser won three of the first four races of the season; and four of the first six – including the US 500, where he infamously shouted Who needs milk?, when he climbed out of the car. That would be Vasser’s last win for a season and a half. He would go twenty-six races without another win, until he won at Laguna Seca in 1997. The 1996 season would be Vasser’s only championship. He was good for a couple of years, and had the misfortune of being overshadowed by two spectacular teammates – Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya; but he never came close to matching that magical six-race stint at the beginning of the 1996 season.

The 2021 season will be remembered as the breakout year of the young drivers. Twenty-one year-old Colton Herta won three races in 2021, more than he’s ever won in one season. Palou won his first three IndyCar races ever in 2021, while winning the championship at the age of twenty-four. Twenty-two year-old Pato O’Ward won his first two IndyCar races in 2021, while Rinus VeeKay was still twenty when he won his first and only IndyCar race in 2021.

Maybe it’s because I’m an old curmudgeon myself, but I think normalcy returns to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2022. I predict that next year’s champion will be at least over thirty.

I’ll admit, I’m slow to accept drivers that experience sudden success. When Jacques Villeneuve came onto the scene in 1994, I was very reluctant to admit he was all that, while everyone else quickly embraced him. It wasn’t until he won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the championship in his second year, that I finally admitted that he was pretty good.

Alex Palou could very well end up being the next Villeneuve, Zanardi or Montoya – who coincidentally all left IndyCar to drive for Williams in Formula One. Villeneuve won a championship for Sir Frank, while Montoya won some races for him. Zanardi never came close to a win. Palou doesn’t seem as infatuated with Formula One, as Herta or O’Ward. He seems more content to stay in IndyCar and pursue more championships and race wins.

Will Alex Palou win at least three more races and contend for the championship next season and in the years to come? Or did he just happen to catch lightning in a bottle for one season, that he will never be able to match again. Personally, I hope it’s the former and not the latter. I’m just not sold, quite yet. I just need to see more.

George Phillips

Please Note: Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and I always get off from work the day when we honor our US Veterans. The way the calendar falls this year, I have decided that I will take Friday off from work also. So that I can relax over my break from work, there will be no post here on Friday November 12. I will return here on Monday Nov 15. Please remember to thank all of our service men and women, for all they have done for our country. Enjoy the weekend, and please come back on Monday. – GP

11 Responses to “Needing to See More”

  1. My view is that Palou is the real deal.

    A thinking driver although maybe not the fastest in terms of raw speed. I actually think he is more likely to get a F1 drive than Herta or O’Ward. I agree though that he seems to have eyes only for Indycar at the moment but if he wins the 500 or another Championship he will be available. He can come back for the 500 year after year.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    I do think Palou will be a contender in the next few years. But I think Newgarden is the most complete driver in Indycar today. He would be my pick. With Herta , and Dixon close behind. Was very happy to here about Susan’s clear scans!

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I would be surprised if Palou does not continue to compete for wins and titles. I think there are a few drivers that are faster (Herta, especially), but if Palou continues to couple minimal mistakes with top 5 speed then it only takes a couple of slip ups from the other contenders to keep him at the top again.

    I think if Palou sinks, it will be because Ganassi is struggling time-wide. Vasser might not have caught lightning in a bottle again like he did in 1996, but he still drove for the series’ best team the next two years and finished 3rd and 2nd in the championship.

  4. Talon De Brea Says:

    Forget the championship — did anyone expect Palou to outscore his teammate Dixon? What an interesting, competitive season it was.

    The news regarding Susan is true reason for thanksgiving.

  5. Maurice Kessler Says:

    So glad to hear about Mrs. Phillips. Great news!

  6. That’s great news about Susan.

  7. Alex Palou is probably only the 2nd driver in US open-wheel racing history to win the championship without ever having won a race on an oval before. The other is Simon Pagenaud, who won his first oval race a year after winning the title, and later went on to win the Indianapolis 500. Palou was close there this year but now 4-time champion Helio Castroneves’ experience outperformed him. Palou fared pretty well in his 1st season of being Scott Dixon’s teammate, who is still in his prime. That all points towards him being an equal to Dixon as much as Franchitti was, though the lack of ovals on the current schedule do indeed render his lack of experiences on those as less significant – at the time. That’s why I fully understand you are not sold on him, but I don’t agree. He is focussed and will most likely win races again in the upcoming season. If a driver is in title contention usually starts fairly early on in this series because it is so competitive. So the first 3 or 4 races already decide a lot about who is in the running and who is not. The last time when the points leader before the Month of May was not in the hunt for the title was in 2013 when Takuma Sato was leading the points in a Foyt car. Many times, the winner of the 1st race has also won the championship. Palou has pulled that off beautifully.

    • billytheskink Says:

      1996 IRL co-champion Scott Sharp would be another driver who had not won an oval race before or during his championship season, though that 3 race 1996 season is certainly an odd circumstance and Sharp did win the race at New Hampshire in 1996 that kicked off the 96-97 IRL season.

      Dario Franchitti nearly pulled off the feat in 1999 hen he tied Montoya for the CART championship but was not declared a co-champion the way Sharp was.

  8. Will Alex Palou win at least three more races…..yes.
    do races other than Indycar count?

  9. What wonderful news about Susan’s health!!!

    Palou will win races next year. I was very impressed with his focus and maturity.

  10. northeastvista Says:

    So happy you shared the results of Susan’s tests. A great reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. May the blessings continue.

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