INSIGHT: The special championship run for Palou's crew

INSIGHT: The special championship run for Palou's crew

Ricky Davis feared his best days as an IndyCar crew chief were in the past.

A disappointing total of two race wins since 2014 had one of the sport’s most respected mechanics questioning if it was time to close his toolbox and leave 30-plus years of racing behind for retirement.

“It’s been such a long stretch for me to be even in contention for this; 2013 was the last year I won with Scott [Dixon],” Alex Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing car leader tells RACER. “We started to have success with Felix [Rosenqvist] and unfortunately, we went different paths. But I wasn’t sure that I could ever get to this level again or that we would never have this level of success. You know, I started doubting myself. Trust me, I doubted myself a couple years ago as to what I should do.”

Enter a 24-year-old kid from Spain who brought a team-wide infusion of sunshine and, in the case of Davis, a reason to believe brighter days were ahead.

“It’s been an experience that I’ve never really felt before with somebody,” he continues. “Alex, he’s so calm. He’s the happiest person in the world every day. It was like it’s a facade. He really really is that happy. He was happy the first time I met him. He was happy to be in our shop. He was happy to go into the first race. He’s been happy ever since. He’s got race savvy. He’s got race smarts. He’s just everything that you need.

“And honestly, he uplifted everybody on the team from Day 1. You know, a few of the younger guys had been with the team for a number of years, with very little success. And he brought an attitude of just being so happy and you can just feel everybody around him embrace it and be happier.”

Palou provided Davis (above) a unique experience in their first season together that Davis admittedly never experienced in his 30-plus years in racing. Image courtesy of Marshall Pruett

CGR team manager Barry Wanser, who serves as Palou’s race strategist, just earned his 10th championship with the program. Although he didn’t know exactly what Palou would bring to the outfit, a bold maneuver made last year gave him an idea of what the then-IndyCar rookie had to offer.

“What I saw was a young kid make a very brave move on someone on the outside of Turn 1 at Road America in his first year and I never forgot that,” Wanser says. “So, when Chip announced it was going to be Alex in the No. 10 car, I thought, ‘Well, we’ve got a guy who can actually get it done.’”

“And then what he’s been able to do for us is give us all the options on the timing stand: Saving the fuel, running the fuel mileage we ask, pushing hard when we need him to. Just the performance that he’s able to provide is really second to none. And at such a young age. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have such a great leader in the driver.”

Julian Robertson steered Dixon to his first of six IndyCar titles with CGR in 2003. The race engineer, who also helped bring CGR’s first win in 1994 with Michael Andretti, added to his legacy of firsts with Palou’s entry into the team’s pantheon of champions.

“He’s super fast, super cool in the car, he knows exactly what’s going on, and knows exactly what to do,” Robertson says. “He works with us on strategies, does things on his own because he understands it. Super adaptable to all kinds of tracks. It’s been a pleasure working with him.”

Considering how little Palou knew about IndyCar after arriving from the Japanese Super Formula series in 2020, the man who brought him to the series believes having Dixon as a teammate changed the sophomore’s future.

“The best guy you could study from is Scott Dixon,” Roger Yasukawa says. “Scott’s been in this series for many years, and I knew Alex had the capability to work together with Scott. I think he certainly proved as far as what he can do and what he could accomplish today. I’m sure this is going to be first of many.”

Palou left an unforgettable impression on Wanser (above) after a thrilling pass at Road America during his rookie season in IndyCar. Michael L. Levitt/Motorsport Images

If you want to know the truth about a driver — the good and the bad — just ask the person in charge of his car. And his fate. Davis points to Palou’s shocking degree of humility as the foundation upon which his championship was assembled.

“Compared to some of the more experienced drivers that we’ve had, he brought a willingness to learn and to listen and ask questions and ask advice,” Davis says. “On pit stops, for example, when he went testing with him and we started practicing pitstop with him, he wanted to know how he can come into the pits better than he was. He wanted to help with everything and he asked whoever he needed to ask. He asked the fueler what he needs him to do better. He wants to know every aspect of everything that has to do with driving a racecar. He never stops asking how to get better.”

As the marine layer closed in and the temperatures started to cool in the paddock, the CGR team began breaking down their pit equipment and the awning that acted as their temporary home in Long Beach. The No. 10 Honda was left out, center stage, full of marks from tire rubber and debris, which became a rallying point for waves of rival mechanics to seek out and congratulate Davis as he stood next to his title-winning machine. One of their inspirations, in the final stretch of a hall of fame career, was still on top of his game.

Davis has a single regret after winning the IndyCar championship on his first try with Palou, and it’s in wanting a career’s worth of additional time with the series’ newest super star.

With a smile, Davis adds, “I just wish I was 20 years younger.”