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.

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