Like fine wine, Pagenaud has developed excellent championship flavor

Updated: 

Simon Pagenaud has always had the personality part of his racing career down pat.

Verizon IndyCar Series fans found the Frenchman to be undeniably entertaining and engaging when he emerged as a full-time regular for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports in 2012. He understood his role as a racer demanded more than just performance in a car, although there was never any question about the seriousness with which he approached his job.

As Pagenaud steadily built his racing resume to become a series champion for Team Penske this season, so too did his popular persona grow outside of the car. He always took the time to sign autographs and mingle with fans. He was approachable and real, genuine qualities that inevitably resonated.

His handsome, clean-cut appearance with finely quaffed dark hair prompted some spectators to mistake him as his eventual Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves. Pagenaud couldn’t help but laugh when fans continually screamed, “Helio!”

His spot-on 2013 impersonation of cinematic French driver Jean Girard from the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” created a video that went viral on YouTube as he proclaimed, “I have come to defeat Will Power.” Ironically, it was Power, another Team Penske teammate, that Pagenaud defeated to win the 2016 series championship.

The movie connection created another amusing case of mistaken identity, prompting Pagenaud to explain in another video that he was not actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who played the Girard character. Pagenaud, 32, had seized an opportunity to provide another good laugh in building his brand.

In 2014, Pagenaud cooked crepes for teammate Mikhail Aleshin in a Gasoline Alley garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the morning of an Indianapolis 500 practice. His love of animals prompted him to temporarily adopt a puppy and find the dog a new home as a promotion for the Indianapolis Humane Society.

Competitors were just like fans: They couldn’t help but like the guy.

“He’s a really good dude. I enjoy hanging out with him,” said Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, whose popularity has grown on a national level with his current appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“He’s always very nice and polite,” said four-time series champion Scott Dixon, once a Pagenaud teammate in Acura sports cars driving for Gil de Ferran.

It was de Ferran, a two-time Indy car champion and the 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner for Team Penske, who told Pagenaud when hiring him to forget about the dream to race Indy cars.

“But very quickly, I realized (the dream) wasn’t gone and that I lied, which I did,” Pagenaud said after winning the season-finale GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to clinch the championship on Sept. 18. “Having Gil next to me, being my Yoda like I say all the time, it’s been pretty cool.”

Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, sees a lot of de Ferran rubbing off on Pagenaud.

“Simon has a unique and different talent that reminds me a lot of a friend of mine, Gil de Ferran,” the Brazilian driver said. “He’s very particular, which is interesting, but knows what he wants and he delivers. I’m very happy for the season he’s had. After the first (winless) year he had with us, this year it was like 180 degrees and shows that he’s a true champion.”

Castroneves also conceded, “Even before Simon joined the team, we were already talking about Simon.”

The de Ferran connection also signified when Pagenaud first showed up on the radar of Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske.

“We really got to know Simon a little bit through Gil de Ferran in the sports car program,” said Tim Cindric, Team Penske president. “Gil always told me Simon is a guy who could fit into our organization at the right time. We just needed to wait until the right time.”

Penske hired Pagenaud as well as the driver’s trusty engineer, Ben Bretzman, before the 2015 season. Bretzman described his connection in setting up a car for Pagenaud as a “mind meld.” He knows the fun-loving champion best, from the driver’s disdain for rap music and an obsessive affinity for his Jack Russell Terrier named Norman to Pagenaud being a bit of a penny pincher.

“He’s really cheap,” Bretzman said. “I spend way more money than he does. I’m the one who drives expensive cars.”

Perhaps Pagenaud can splurge a bit now that he’ll receive the $1 million champion’s prize at Tuesday night’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship Celebration in downtown Indianapolis.

“This is our second championship together; We won sports cars together (in 2010),” Bretzman said. “I know how much that one meant to him, and this one means four times as much. Same for me. You’re beating the best drivers in the world; these are the most versatile drivers in the world with ovals and road and street courses. If you can win this championship, it means almost everything. I’m so proud that he can excel on all courses now. It takes a great driver to do that. I’m super excited about that. He can do it all.”

After so many years in the making, Pagenaud’s personality and performance have peaked at the same level. He’s no longer just a good guy. He’s proven himself to be a pretty good driver, too.

“Gil saw from early on that he was a big talent,” Dixon said. “You understand somebody’s work ethic and Simon is a very hard worker. A lot of time, he’ll be the last one to leave the paddock and the first one there.”

Pagenaud made a clear statement of his intent to capture the 2016 championship when he won three straight races in April and early May. Hinchcliffe, though, was impressed by Pagenaud’s pass of Power, a 2014 series champion, that led to a July victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. 

“That was potentially a championship-winning drive right there,” Hinchcliffe said. “That’s the kind of stuff you look at. A move like that, that race impressed me more than his three wins in the middle of the year. That was the kind of move that wins a championship.”

That it did.

When Pagenaud was introduced as a series champion for the first time at Sonoma, it’s not surprising he immediately thanked the fans, then his crew, family and sponsors. Once again, he was genuine.

“It comes from the heart,” Pagenaud said. “It’s not possible without everybody that’s around me.”

The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship Celebration will stream live from Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis beginning at 6:45 p.m. ET Tuesday. It will be available at IndyCar.com and at facebook.com/IndyCar.

From the fans