Young stars alongside grand master on Indy front row

Young stars alongside grand master on Indy front row

Two young stars of the NTT IndyCar Series have established themselves as quick studies of the Indianapolis 500. In three qualifying attempts, Alex Palou has started seventh, sixth, and rolls off Sunday in the middle of the front row — second — with the Chip Ganassi Racing Team.

On his right will be Rinus VeeKay whose three qualifying positions at the Indy 500 are even more impressive with a fourth, third, and another third for the Ed Carpenter Racing team.

For Palou, the 25-year-old from Spain claimed a strong second-place finish in last year’s race, his best to date, and VeeKay was close behind in eighth, also his top result in the 200-lap contest. Palou arrived in America in 2020 with zero oval experience, and yet, he’s become a star performer in the art of turning left after learning it on the job in IndyCar.

Known for his road racing prowess, he says he was surprised by how quickly he fell in love with ovals, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in particular.

“The team is surprised as well!” Palou told RACER with a laugh. “But it’s working so we’re not going to change that! I think the fact of having so many sessions and so much track time from 12-6 with practice, it’s a lot of hours. I can do as many laps as I want, and that gives me confidence, which is different from other ovals where maybe I’m struggling to feel the car perfectly.

“Now, I know what to do and what I don’t have to do at Indianapolis. This is a place where I found the limit last year when I crashed my car. It’s know now where the limit is that I didn’t know last year… But this is an amazing place.”

While Scott Dixon remains the benchmark, his younger Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou and ECR’s Rinus VeeKay have shown they can take the fight to veterans like him. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

For VeeKay, the 21-year-old from Holland, an earlier start on ovals was made possible by his parents’ decision to send him to America as a teen and begin the education process on the Road to Indy in 2017. He’d earn a podium on his first oval start with Pabst Racing in USF2000 and claim his first oval win the following year with Juncos Racing in Pro Mazda. Two more oval podiums followed in Indy Lights the next year with Juncos, and despite the RTI’s limited opportunities to learn on ovals of all sizes, VeeKay was primed and ready to perform on IndyCar’s biggest stage.

“We’ve got something good because we have as a team fast qualifying cars, but also very fast race cars,” VeeKay said. I think me, Palou, some of the other young guys, we’re able to run close to older guys, even if we don’t have a all the experience they have. But I’m starting next to Alex, who can be trusted.”

It says a lot that one driver with two Indy 500s under his belt has such confidence in another with the same relative lack of mileage.

“Oh, definitely,” VeeKay continued. “Alex has a good mindset to start next to because he thinks about the end result. He doesn’t want to go all crazy in Turn 1 on the first lap. So I know he’s a patient guy and I’ve learned to be patient too.

“I think it was awesome, the Fast Six, having the big difference in age. Scott Dixon, Ed , Tony Kanaan, I think their average age is like 43, and then it’s me and Palou and Marcus Ericsson, guys in their 20s. That’s really what’s cool about IndyCar right now — it shows the young guys can race with the older guys.”

Circling back to the defending NTT IndyCar Series champion, Palou and his pole-winning teammate Dixon are the oddsmakers favorites to reach victory lane on Sunday. Whether it’s one of the CGR drivers on the front row, VeeKay, or someone else, Palou appreciates the chance he’s given himself to shine in a most unexpected form of racing.

“I’m really lucky to be able to dream to get to live this dream of mine,” he said. “And to be in the front row now, for the 106th Indianapolis 500, is something I could never imagine for myself.”