INDYCAR veteran Yasukawa helped Palou become a celebrity

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The story of Alex Palou’s remarkable rise to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES Championship cannot be told without including former series driver Roger Yasukawa and his longtime friend, Japanese businessman Kazumichi Goh.

Goh had been one of Yasukawa’s supporters on his rise to the INDYCAR SERIES in the early 2000s, but he had strayed from the sport for most of a decade. Reinvigorated in the fall of 2018, Goh told Yasukawa of his interest in forming a Japanese Super GT team, and he hired five-time Indianapolis 500 starter Yasukawa as sporting director.

Yasukawa’s first task was to compile a list of potential drivers for hire. Palou’s name was one of the first he received.

“I had heard of him, but I didn’t know much about him,” Yasukawa said this week. “I asked around, and everyone praised him during his days in GP3 and F3. It was clear that he was fast.

Then Yasukawa meets Palou, then 21 years old. He was blown away by the maturity and presence of the Spaniard. Yasukawa described him as “neat and tidy”, possessing a level of preparation rare for such a young man.

The combination of these personal traits and his track performance – third in the Japanese F3 Championship in 2017, seventh in the European F3 in a 2018 season won by current Formula 1 rookie Mick Schumacher – made him the first choice on Yasukawa’s list. They came to an agreement as Palou could pair his new race with Nakajima Racing’s Super Formula team for a full return to Japanese racing circles.

Palou nearly won the Super Formula title in 2019 and became his Rookie of the Year, but it was mid-season on the bullet train from Japan where the conversation turned to INDYCAR.

Yasukawa said Palou knew about his INDYCAR background – 40 starts with six teams over an eight-year span (2003-10) – but they never discussed it. On the train, Palou said his goal was to achieve the best form in American open wheel racing.

“It actually surprised me because with his background and being in a good situation with Honda of Japan, I thought he was aiming for Formula 1,” said Yasukawa. “I said I would be more than happy to help him get to where he wanted, but I recommended that the first step would be to go to an INDYCAR race and preferably an oval.”

Yasukawa recommended the 2019 Texas Motor Speedway race, which was held on an open weekend in the Palou schedule. This set the wheels in motion, but once again Palou surprised Yasukawa.

“What I didn’t know was how much he already knew about INDYCAR,” he said. “We’re getting there, and he knew every rider – not personally – but he knew the teams, the riders and the way they raced. It was impressive.

“Watching the cars roll and the drivers themselves, he was amazed at what it takes to win in this series. But he was thrilled to see it live, and he knew he could get in that car and do well.

One of their first encounters was with Dale Coyne, who as a driver in the 1990s had Goh as a sponsor on his car. Palou’s connection to Goh was enough for Coyne to suggest a test later in the season at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which turned out to be a memorable session.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the story, but Alex performed really well that day,” Yasukawa said. “It was the start of the journey to INDYCAR.”

Interestingly, Yasukawa’s suggestion to go to Texas Motor Speedway had aroused emotions in Palou. One of his favorite racing weekends was a 2017 trip to the Circuit of the Americas, where he finished fifth and second in a World Series Formula V8 3.5 Series doubles program. This explains why when Palou joined Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh for the 2020 INDYCAR season, he moved to Austin rather than the Chicago area, where the team is based, or Indianapolis.

This trip on the Japanese bullet train also illustrated the importance of Yasukawa’s lawyer. He stressed the importance of timing in a pilot’s career, and he astutely predicted that INDYCAR was approaching a transition period with several pilots soon to be 40 years old. In fact, three of those drivers – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Will Power – have won races this season, while 40-plus-year-old Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sébastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan, among them, have limited opportunities in the race. the series in 2022.

“Two years ago I was already anticipating some change in the generation of drivers, and I think that’s what we’ve seen this year already,” said Yasukawa. “The timing of that and joining (Chip Ganassi Racing), the two came faster than I thought, but I knew it was all about timing for Alex.”

Palou also did his part, impressing many in the INDYCAR paddock by finishing third as a rookie in Road America’s first race in 2020 and qualifying third the next day, then qualifying seventh for the Indianapolis 500. presented by Gainbridge in August. It was during this first oval race at IMS that Palou asked team owner Chip Ganassi: “What does it take to drive for you?

Response from Ganassi: “Keep doing what you are doing. “

Palou’s opportunity to be considered to drive Ganassi’s # 10 Honda NTT DATA came when Felix Rosenqvist started looking to Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. Ganassi and his team general manager, Chip Hull, have shortlisted Palou to take the seat, eventually hiring him. But even Ganassi said he was still not convinced of Palou during preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park.

“All four (team) cars were there,” Ganassi said of his team. “(Palou) finished the fastest, and we were like ‘My God’. But we were trying a lot of things, and you never know in a test a particular day, an hour, tires, whatever. You always find a justification as to why a guy was or wasn’t fast.

“We kind of took it with a grain of salt.”

Then came the season opener at Barber, where Palou clocked the fastest lap in the opening practice of the Honda Indy Alabama Grand Prix. Ganassi shrugged his shoulders.

“We said, ‘OK, great that’s good, but we have qualifying, a race, a lot of talent in the paddock,” he said.

Palou responded by qualifying third and winning the race.

“He’s had Will Power and Dixon on his neck all day,” Ganassi said. “He showed there that he could take the pressure. He could win. He hasn’t put on a bad wheel all day.

Fifteen races later, the winner of three races, a season high, became the first Spaniard and the sixth Ganassi driver to win an INDYCAR championship. The other CGR champions: Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Dixon. A big company, of course, and it should be noted that Palou is the first Ganassi driver since Franchitti in 2011 to beat Dixon on points in one season.

“I think he brings a lot of that kind of Japanese mentality to the team, which a lot of us find refreshing,” said Ganassi. “He brought a certain courage, I would say, that you see in that part of the world.”

Yasukawa had seen him almost from the moment he had met Palou.

“The kid was barely 21 at the time, and that’s how he handled everything – signing deals, getting to the track, being ready and preparing as a race car driver,” he said. Yasukawa said. “He’s tidy and prepared, and everything you see about him is like that. For example, her hair is always perfect, and it was confirmed to me when I went to her apartment in Indianapolis earlier this year. He keeps everything tidy and clean, and for me he’s a maintenance free driver.

“He showed his performance last year at Road America and showed up at Indy and was good on the ovals, but there were still a lot of unknowns (coming in 2021). Could he be a driver to compete for the victories and ultimately the title? Needless to say, he turned out to be more than capable, and I hope Chip will agree that he made a good decision.


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