“Would you like to meet a race car driver?”
When a friend of a friend — Jim was his name — posed that question to Hailey McDermott, her answer was a resounding “No!” Hailey, a San Diego native, had just finished a long day manning a trade-show booth at the Indianapolis Convention Center for her father’s surround-sound speaker business. All she wanted was a quiet meal and a drink. Besides, she says of the race car driver, “I didn’t know if he was going to be nice or not, you know?”
That race car driver was Simon Pagenaud, who as a Team Penske driver just earned his first Verizon IndyCar Series season championship but then, in 2013, was nearing the end of his second season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Jim worked for Bowers & Wilkins, one of SPM’s top sponsors. Jim was also, Hailey and Simon quickly soon discovered, extremely persistent. Eventually, he prevailed. He introduced Simon to Hailey — and thank goodness he did.
“Simon and I sat there and talked to each other for four hours,” Hailey recalls.
The next day, Simon, who grew up in Montmorillon, France, but moved to Indianapolis at age 21 to pursue a career in racing, texted Hailey to ask her out for coffee.
“I told him no,” she says. “I was still a little hesitant.”
Hailey explains, “I was in a town I didn’t really know. And I was there working, that was the biggest thing. So I was very cautious.”
But Simon, too, was extremely persistent. Eventually, he prevailed. He persuaded Hailey to go to dinner with him, but she made a backup plan in case the date was a disaster.
“Every year they have a big party after this trade show, so I was like, ‘OK, we can go to dinner. But I have to go to this party afterward.’”
As it happened, Hailey missed the party. Dinner (they ate sushi) went “very, very well.” Simon “was very genuine. Very genuine, very caring and very humble. That was probably my first impression: how humble he was. He was very proper and sweet and kind. He was respectful. You could just tell he was a good man.”
Simon was also, Hailey started to realize, “a big deal.”
Her first clue: Throughout the evening, “People were coming up to him, like, ‘Congratulations! You’re doing great!’” Later, when they went to a bar across the street, she discovered they served a cocktail named after him. (“It was all blue, and I don’t do that,” she recalls with a shudder.)
But Hailey, it turned out, had a fan club of her own. “Across the bar, were some guys from the convention, and they were all like, ‘Hailey! Hailey!’” she explains, laughing. Later, after a few other convention-goers approached her, Hailey found herself delivering a sales pitch. “As soon as they walked away,” she says, “Simon looks at me and goes, ‘Man, I feel like a trophy wife!’”
“That was it,” says Hailey of that first date. That one date was all it took, for both of them. Neither of them wanted it to end. Simon invited Hailey to the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway in California, scheduled for the very next weekend. “I went to the race and had the time of my life,” she says.
Two months later, she quit her job, packed her things and moved to Indy.
“They say opposites attract,” Hailey muses, “but for us, it’s the opposite.” Simon and Hailey are, in fact, quite similar. But it works. “I’m with my best friend every day,” she says. “We just work so well together. On those hard days, we have each other. And on the easy days, we have each other to celebrate with.”
Such as the championship Pagenaud won Sept. 18, again at Sonoma Raceway. He will be officially recognized Tuesday at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis at the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship Celebration. The event will stream live on IndyCar.com and the INDYCAR Facebook page.
“We’re living the life right now,” Pagenaud told an Indianapolis Star reporter in May. Hailey, he says, “is a great support in my life.”
What about marriage? They’re planning on it. But, says Hailey, “it’s not a priority. We’re not in any rush. We’re enjoying this time a lot right now.”
Besides, they have their hands full caring for Norman, their Jack Russell Terrier puppy. “He’s our first son,” she says with a laugh. For Simon and Hailey (and Norman, of course), “Every day is an adventure!”