Thursday, July 28, 2022

Say it isn't so, Alex. Say it isn't so!

I'm going to start this off by saying that Alex Palou is my favorite IndyCar driver. I'll expound on more about that in a minute.

I wanted to get that bias out of the way first, because I want you to know where I'm coming from. Because I'm going to say some nice and some not-so-nice things in the coming paragraphs and full disclosure is only the right thing to do.

Despite still writing an 11-year-old blog on an even older platform, I'm still a professional.

So we all know what is going on, and if you don't, I'll give a nod to the boys at the Indy Star, who are all over this mess. Nathan Brown is doing stellar work and Gregg Doyel has even weighed in.

In fact, Gregg inspired this post, so check his column here.

Quick recap: on July 12, Chip Ganassi Racing announced on his socials that they had picked up the option on Palou's contract for 2023. Hours later, Palou fired back with his statement, saying that due to "personal reasons", he would not be back in the No. 10 car next season.

Hours after THAT, McLaren Racing (not the IndyCar team, the umbrella organization) announced that Palou had signed a contract with them for 2023 and beyond. This whole fiasco reached its peak yesterday when Chip Ganassi Racing v. Alex Palou became an entry on a court docket.

It's all just a crapshow by now, and yet, somehow, Palou and CGR will have to soldier on this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and, according to a CGR release, the rest of the season. Which, in my opinion, for Palou, the season is already over. If what we saw at Iowa over the weekend was any indication, the 2021 IndyCar champ has no chance in hell to repeat.

I wasn't in Iowa but from what I watched during the races, I came to the conclusion that his team is going through the motions for him, and that's it. 

I'm not going to comment on contracts, who's right or wrong, or the fact that my reading the tea leaves makes me think this is about his management team trying to strike when the iron is hot and getting him to McLaren so he can replace Daniel Ricciardo on its Formula 1 team next year. What I will say is that Palou has more than outperformed his contract and deserves more money, and if he wants to spend more time in Spain, that should be accommodated.


What I'm going to comment on is about Alex Palou himself, and the underbelly of the racing world.

First about Alex. During the pandemic in 2020, it was a podcaster's dream. Nothing was going on and IndyCar PR people were lining up their drivers for exposure in any way they could. I couldn't believe the interviews that I was scoring, even after the season started back up. 

Now, those same PR people won't even reply to emails. Que sera, sera, though, I'm not bitter because it was a great run. As my therapist reminds me about things I've experineced: even if it never happens again, it was pretty freaking cool that it did.

(Editor's note: The two exceptions to this are Brie Rentz, PR person for Ed Carpenter Racing, and Tom Blattler, PR guy for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. Both are awesome people and always accommodate me as best they can.)

But anyway, I was given access to Alex, and he quickly became a favorite subject of mine. Sweet, kind, positive, funny and unassuming, he was so much fun to talk to, so much so that I featured him several times on my pod.

Now, the way these interviews worked was the PR reps would set up a call, and the drivers would call me. That meant I had their phone numbers. After I got off the phone I would create a contact in my phone and everything, because, really, how cool is it to have IndyCar drivers in your contacts?

Ultimately, I would delete them, because I respected their privacy. I wasn't on any sort of a beat, it was something fun and was a great distraction during the pandemic. If I needed anything else I'd just go back to the reps, because that's what they do.

I kept one number in my contacts, though: Alex Palou's. During our second conversation Alex told me that I could call or text him anytime.

So I did. I started texting him on race weekends, wishing him luck before the weekend started and congratulating him on a great run -- or condolences on a bad weekend. No big deal, I still respected his privacy, and it was fun to have an IndyCar driver as a "text friend".

His replies were never all that detailed, usually a thumbs-up emoji, or a thank you, or if things went great I got a "Yeah!!!!". That was the reply I got after he clinched his title at Long Beach. It was also the last reply I ever received from him.

I reached out a few more times, but in the end I figured that he belonged to the world now, and that was OK. (I think that was in a movie somewhere) It was a lot of fun while it lasted, but I figured he either had a new phone or CGR PR or his management team told him to narrow himself down a bit. 

(Editor's note No. 2: If I were still with a popular podcast or on the IndyCar beat in some form or function, I would never have done this. That would be a compromise and a no-no in my book.)

I settled into the season, bought some merch, and then rooted for him all season long. In fact, I still do, and I'll tell you why.

Whatever is going on, this isn't Palou. Somewhere along the line he got some bad advice and is struggling to tread water. 

Am I covering for someone I like and respect? Probably. Am I also speaking from experience?


Here's my story. Well, the short version:

Back in 2016, bored and frustrated by my IT job, I made the decision to work in racing. In whatever capacity, I didn't care. 

What you can probably guess is that I'm not the only one. There are thousands of peeps like me who have the same dream, which was certainly a wake-up call for me. After tons of no's or no answers I got my first hit, from John Cummiskey, owner of John Cummiskey Racing in the USF2000 series.

After a conversation with him, he invited me to come up to the Road America weekend, and I worked for the team all the way through to May, 2017, when JCR was unable to continue due to funding issues.

In hindsight, maybe I should've stopped there. John Cummiskey is everything that is right with racing. Like many he started at the bottom, but eventually spent the 1990s with Team Penske and enjoyed all of the successes that went with that team. Later, he spent time with other teams in different capacities. While JCR had limited success in the USF2000 series, John had the reputation of always putting together well-prepared cars and putting his drivers in the best positions to succeed.

What I liked about John -- and still do -- is that he is someone of honesty and integrity. I won't gush much more about John because he'd hate it, but he's just at his core a very good man.

Moving on from John, I discovered that not everyone in the racing world is the same. There are a lot of smarmy people who promise you tons of things that they can't deliver.

In a two-year span, here's what I was promised or told: I was going to be given charge of sponsorship for a team for the next year's Indy 500, I was going to be made rich, I was the new PR guy for a junior formula team. That one was fun, I even set up accounts for them and everything, then come to find out the person who told me I had the gig had never actually talked about it with the team.

I was once promised a role with someone, a person I really trusted, and when I couldn't make it to a race weekend because of a previous commitment, they handed the job to someone else. I remember once being told that a driver was confirmed for a ride in a couple of IndyCar races, and I was going to be the one presenting the press conference. I could go on.

I spent thousand of dollars of my own money going all over the country chasing dreams and promises, and they all came up empty. People I thought were my friends -- people I had worked with and formed incredible relationships with -- dropped me for no reason, or tried to tell me what to do, despite never paying me a dime. Too bad for them, I've won awards since then.

It goes on and on. I knew what was going on, but I went with it, because I figured once completed my Andy Dufresne-like gauntlet run through a quarter-mile of crap, I'd have a career. 

Back when I graduated high school, I got a job with a consumer loan company. I was the trainee and I got the crappy stuff to do, like calling people on the phone for late payments, knocking on their doors demanding money, and even once repossessing a car. (It was a 1977 Firebird, it was kind of fun to drive away.)

I figured I'd do the crappy stuff for a couple of years, then move into management and have other people do that stuff. I'm old school, that's how it used to work.

It doesn't work that way any longer.

I know some might say I'm bitter, because things in the end didn't work out. I'm frustrated, sure, because I feel I have a lot to offer, but not bitter. After all, for each one of those things that happened, I had a hundred great experiences that cancelled each of them out.

This also isn't an indictment of racing, either. People like that exist in every industry in the world. Just the same, for every smarmy person there are tons of great people that have an immense passion for the sport and for competition. I love the IndyCar paddock and hope it might still work out for me someday.

But back to Palou. With all of that in mind, I did shoot my shot with Alex, in fact, probably around a year ago today. After finally finishing my degree -- what I had hoped was the final piece of the puzzle to find a job -- I had put out a bunch of emails and LinkedIn connects but had come out dry.

So with the encouragement of my amazing wife Darcy, who is beside me in everything I do, I asked Alex if I could help him with his social media. I thought his could use some more magic, which I will provide someone someday, and I offered to pay my own way and do the August races for free. After that, we could talk.

Because he is one of the sweetest people alive, he very politely declined, saying he had someone doing it for him. Cool, I wasn't offended. I mean, doesn't Michael Scott have a quote about shooting shots?

So I moved on. But in the time I've been familiar with Alex Palou, one thing is certain, he is a super kind person who it seems can easily be taken advantage of by others. Gregg Doyel called him naïve, and I agree. He wants to drive the car and everything involved in it and let everyone else take care of the details.

There's nothing wrong with that. Imagine being in his shoes: one year you are driving in near worldwide obscurity in Japan, and two years later you are an IndyCar champion and superstar. That happened quickly, and remember, Palou is a first-generation racer, and at 24 years old, did he really have the life experience for this?

Which leads me to my dénouement: this isn't Alex, this is poor management and poor advice heaped on someone who wasn't ready for it. And sadly, as we get into the race weekend at IMS, it's continuing. 

It's sad that he's in the middle of this, but I truly believe that he was promised a lot by his new management agency, Monaco Increase Management, who shot their shot with him, and they drilled it from downtown.

I'm only speculating, like you and everyone else. But if you go to their website, they manage just three drivers. It seems like they have a competent group of people working in their firm, many with impressive racing credentials. They say that their goal is quality over quantity, and to treat drivers as if they are their own start-up company.

It sounds good, right? But what have they really done for Alex? His social media is still just average, his race coverage on the website is sub-par, and now he is embroiled in this.

I feel like there is a "kill 'em all and let the lawyers sort it out" mentality at work on all sides, but for my money, I'm with Chip Ganassi. Love him or hate him personally, he has run a solid shop for more than 30 years and that longevity puts me on his side.

As far as Zak Brown goes, I think he was just an innocent bystander in this. (Editor's note: He wasn't. In fact he seems like kind of a snake.) Team Principals, especially one who runs an iconic brand like McLaren, have a lot on their shoulders. They delegate lots of things, and people like Brown and Ganassi are smart enough to know what they don't know. 

Ganassi has a degree in finance, and by my best research I'm not sure Brown even has one at all. Which also means, they may be the best in the world at what they do, but they aren't lawyers, and lawyers are the people who handle this kind of stuff.

So when Brown says he didn't know about Palou's option year, I believe him. The rivalry between Brown and Ganassi aside, I see both of their points of view: they have a contract with Alex Palou for 2023 and expect him to honor that agreement.

I'm not a lawyer either, but unless Alex's option was mutual, Ganassi holds the upper hand here. He had the first right of refusal for a driver who he currently has under contract. That's just common sense.

It's only going to get darker from here, but what happens next? It's hard to say. It looks like this case is going to arbitration, so it will be hashed out by a third party. In my personal opinion, it's either Palou drives for Ganassi next year or he doesn't drive at all, and in the latter case, he will probably be on the hook for damages.

And if you want to take it all the way to the Seventh Circle of Hell, he drives for neither team and eventually becomes a free agent, going onto the market as damaged product. Or as they say in TV and movies: "back to one".

I think the worst thing that will happen, though, is the hit to Palou's reputation. For everything going on here, he's the one taking the hit, to his reputation and his integrity. It may not be his fault, but he's the face of this -- the face of, shall we say, the "start-up company" -- and he will be the one taking the grenades.

Whether any of this involved any input from him personally or not, how in the world does he rebuild any sort of trust when the IndyCar paddock is laughing at him? Can he even come back from this?

That's up to him. He needs to begin rebuilding those relationships himself, and he is the one that fixes it, because at the end of the day it's his reputation that is on the line.

Have you ever seen the movie The Fighter? I'm reminded of a scene in there where Micky Ward's camp is arguing heatedly during a training session. Finally, Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg, looks at them and says, "I'm the one who is fighting. Not you, not you, and not you."

If Alex Palou wants to fix this, he needs to be the fighter. Once the lawyers have their pound of flesh and billable hours, he needs to step up like a man and fix what's fixable by himself. Not his management, not his team owner, his PR, his family, or Zak Brown.

This is certainly a teachable moment in the life of Alex Palou, and I hope he's going to school, not only for himself, but the people who care about him.

What can I say? I'm selfish. When it all comes down to it, I love the guy and don't want him to go away.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Winners and Losers: Toronto

It was so great to finally see cars on track (or the streets) in Toronto for the first time since 2019. I'd love to rehash some of my posts from them, but alas, they are in an internet void somewhere, never to be seen again.

Advice to young writers: always keep backup copies, you never know when your stuff will be wiped from existence because...well, I won't go there. But I am kind of bitter.

Anyway, I was in Toronto back in 2019 and loved the way the community supported the race, and it was good to see that the fans were back in earnest. Toronto has been and IndyCar staple for a long, long time, and hopefully it stays that way for years to come.

Last week sure as hell was dramatic, wasn't it? Silly Season spiraled out of control, some championship contenders are just happy to be getting out of town, and Scott Dixon once again showed he is the best IndyCar driver of all time.

I present to you, winners and losers from Up North:


Scott Dixon: His dominant performance proved two things, 1) he is still the best driver in the sport and 2) don't count him out of the championship just yet. Sunday's win was No. 52 for the Kiwi, tying him with Mario Andretti for second in all-time IndyCar wins, and while I still consider Mario the best all-around driver who has ever lived, if you go just by IndyCar, how can you argue against Scott Dixon? He's got it all: wins, championships, an Indy goes on and on. Dixon has always said that he doesn't worry about the championship until he is 100 points behind, so a deficit of 44 points to teammate Marcus Ericsson heading into a doubleheader weekend is nothing to stress about.

Colton Herta: Herta definitely had a big week, testing a McLaren F1 car early, then coming to Canada and winning the pole and finishing just behind Dixon on track. Despite the dysfunction that is Andretti Autosport right now, I still think Herta is still in championship contention, despite being in eighth place and 97 points in arrears of Ericsson. Momentum is always important, and to get this kind of result heading into five races in five weeks is a good thing.

Marcus Ericcson: The Indy 500 champ just keeps chugging along. He gained points on some of his closest competitors this past weekend, and is doing what he needs to do to win a championship. I didn't have "Ericcson will be leading the points as we head into late July", on my pre-season IndyCar bingo card, but I kind of like it. 

Graham Rahal: There has been a ton of talk about what's wrong with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing lately, and it's pretty valid given the lack of results for anyone on the team. Rahal finally put it together and picked up a season-best P4. Qualifying has been an effort for RLL all season, so if he brings it all together one weekend we may see his first win since 2017 in the cards.


Alex Palou: I hate having to put my favorite driver in this category, but a great drive on Sunday, where he went from P22 to finish sixth, doesn't really cover up the shitshow that had accompanied his week. He really killed a lot of goodwill he's tried to establish over the last three years in the span of a couple of days, and has set up an uncertain future for himself. I think in the end Zak Brown will write a check and he will be in a McLaren car next year, but he and his team could've handled all of this a lot better. 

Pato O'Ward: Speaking of McLaren, Pato was out of the loop from the jump this weekend, failing to get out of the first round of qualifying and eventually finishing P11. Since finishing second in the 500 and fifth at Detroit, he's gone P26, P24 and P11 in his last three events. It's possible to have a mulligan, and maybe even two, during the season and still win the championship, but he's out of mulligans and will really have to push hard the rest of the season to even think about getting seriously back into the hunt.

Romain Grosjean: A year ago, he was the most popular driver in the series. Now? Are you kidding me? I think it's safe to say the honeymoon is over. Not only is he hitting everything but the pace car, but his ranting over the radio adds to his legend, but not in a good way. He's 15th in points and has finished P16 or worse in five of his last six races. I wonder if Michael Andretti misses Ryan Hunter-Reay yet.

To paraphrase Future in the movie 8 Mile: I can't stress how important this coming weekend at Iowa is for many of the drivers. Two races, both during the day, both during extreme heat, it could be crazy times the power of 10. I expect some fireworks and a lot of changes in the championship standings.

Can I digress for a second? Why is it that the races are in the heat of the day and the concerts aren't? I'm excited to see what this weekend holds in store as far as fan activation, and it's exciting to be back at the bullring in Newton, but is this weekend about racing or about concerts? 

Personally, I think it's about racing, and I think the schedule of events are horribly screwed up. Fortunately Iowa always puts on a great show, but next year, let's think of the drivers and teams first.

Have a great week! I won't be at Iowa this weekend -- bummer -- but I hope to see a great show!

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Winners and Losers: Mid-Ohio

 Happy 4th everyone!

Racing on (or around) Independence Day is an American tradition, and IndyCar continued with that tradition Sunday with the Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio.

While there wasn't a lot of action at the front of the pack, with Scott McLaughlin dominating on his way to his second win on the season, there was a lot of it further back, which included a lot of drama. Who were the winners and losers as the IndyCar series officially crossed the halfway point of the season?


Scott McLaughlin: After a hot start to the season where he won at St. Pete and finished second at Texas, the Kiwi went through a rough patch with three finishes of P19 or worse between the Indy GP and Detroit. While he rebounded with a P7 at Road America, this was a great bounce back weekend for him. The 29-year-old Kiwi moved up two places in the standings to P7 and sits just four points out of P5. 

Will Power: One of the greatest qualifiers in IndyCar history, qualifying has been an issue for Power as of late. No problem, as he has done a great job moving up through the field. Sunday added an even bigger challenge. Starting P21, he was punted on the first lap and dropped all the way back to the tail end of the field in 27th before driving his way to a third-place finish. Power has been amazingly consistent this year, as this was his seventh Top 5 in nine races. He's now P2 in points, just 20 behind Marcus Ericsson.

Rinus "Rooster" VeeKay: Other than a P3 finish at Barber, VeeKay's season has been a disaster, with five finishes of P16 or worse, including a last-place finish at the Indy 500. It's been a tough stretch of races for VeeKay dating back to last year, but he finally got a much-needed good result.

Simona De Silvestro/Paretta Autosport: Let's just bask in their P18 finish for a minute, and then admire Simona and PA on a pretty solid accomplishment. What this team is doing isn't easy. Simona is back in an IndyCar for non-500 races for the first time in seven years, and PA is building a team from the very ground up. In the last two races, the team has finished both on the lead lap, and the P18 is Simona's best finish in IndyCar since New Orleans in 2015. 


Andretti Autosport: Not mincing words, but that organization is a shitshow right now. Mistakes, drivers crashing into each other, drivers not liking each other, poor finishes. It's really a miracle that they have two drivers (Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta) in the Top 10 in points. They all took turns hitting each other Sunday, and, surprisingly enough, rookie Devlin DeFrancesco didn't hit anyone, but was it by a teammate. Seriously, what in the world is going on there? When AA was one of the best teams in the paddock, they were somehow able to manage massaging egos and keeping everyone pointed in the right direction. That's not happening any longer. I have my opinions, which I'll share last week, but the entire team needs an attitude adjustment right now.

Pato O'Ward: With Ericsson and Josef Newgarden having ho-hum weekends finishing in P6 and P7, respectively, O'Ward, starting from the pole, had a chance to tighten things up with at lease a podium finish. That didn't happen, as a mechanical issue ruined his day, as well as the day of teammate Felix Rosenqvist. While it wasn't a horrible weekend as O'Ward is still P5 and just 65 points in arrears, to win a championship you have to pounce when your opponents give you that opportunity.

Felix Rosenqvist: Rosenqvist suffered similar mechanical issues as O'Ward, his teammate, and ended the day DFL in 27th place. While not a serious contender for the championship, he lost a ton of points and is now P11 in the standings. With O'Ward winning the pole and Rosenqvist starting fourth, it looked like Arrow McLaren was going to have a pretty good day. Didn't work out that way.

Daniel Ricciardo: No, not an IndyCar driver -- at least not yet -- but since we are piling on McLaren today (which pains me), let's add Danny Ric to the mix. He's 15th in the points in F1 and hasn't had a podium since winning at Monza last year. With teammate Lando Norris having much better results and sitting seventh in points, it's obvious he isn't getting it done, and at 33 who is going to give him another chance in F1? Looks a little bleak right now.

The Podcast

I had a blast doing a crossover podcast with Abby from Fast Cars Fast Girls this week, and you can listen to it here.