Pagenaud enjoys hero's welcome with champion's tour of France

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After earning the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship with his race win at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in September, Simon Pagenaud didn’t let off the throttle. Within days of the title, he completed a media tour in New York City and another in Indianapolis before being presented with the prestigious Astor Cup at the INDYCAR Championship Celebration.

Even following those festivities, rather than coast to catch his breath, Pagenaud decided a return to his roots was in order to share his newfound success with those who had supported him throughout his journey to the top; friends and family in his hometown of Montmorillon, France.

As word spread of his impending return to France in mid-October, interest in speaking to the newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champ quickly gained momentum among France’s key national media outlets and turned into a five-day media tour of Paris and the city of Poitier, capital of the Vienne region, before the visit culminated with homecoming events in both Poitier and Montmorillon.

Pagenaud grabbed his Team Penske firesuit and the large transport box that housed his replica Astor Cup to hit the ground running in Paris with a visit to the Mondial de l’Automobile, also known as the Paris Motor Show, where his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet was front and center in the Firestone display area.

Simon PagenaudThe next few days were monopolized by three-hour media interviews, photo shoots, autographs, the French tradition of having a lengthy “petit café” with each meeting – followed by apologetic phone calls to let the next appointment know he was “running a bit late” – and the constant battle to flag down a taxi. There were also a number of adventures along the way that highlighted his return home to France.

The challenge of dragging the large protective case containing the Astor Cup through Paris became evident as only a handful of taxis were big enough to transport it. Lots of head scratching and animated discussions on various methods of loading the behemoth box took place before a call was made for another type of vehicle.

A similar scene was repeated with the European-style (small) elevators encountered along the way. It wasn’t unusual for Pagenaud to load the encased Astor Cup into an elevator, send it on its way and then sprint up a number of flights of stairs to meet it; or try to squeeze into the elevator with it and make apologies to surprised onlookers when the doors opened at each floor.

Pagenaud never let the Astor Cup out of sight, dutifully polishing it for every interview and photo shoot, then proudly obliged every request for a closer look or a personal request for a photo with him and his prized possession.

Pagenaud carefully dragged the protective case carrying his beloved Astor Cup over cobblestone streets, up and down flights of stairs, over curbs and through roundabouts on a whirlwind media tour with iconic Parisian backdrops that included Versailles, Place du Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris, Jardin de Médicis and the Moulin Rouge with the can-can dancers.

Pagenaud, whose love of the “Rocky” film series was evident as a common theme throughout his winning season, was delighted to recreate the original movie’s famed final scene in his own French way by running up the Trocadéro stairs to meet and raise the Astor Cup to the surprise and enchantment of bystanders.

Simon Pagenaud

During a Facebook Live session with fans in front of the famous Moulin Rouge, Pagenaud shared a story about how his day had begun. While in Paris, he stayed in the apartment of his mother Sylvie, a noted choreographer, dancer and teacher. While taking his morning shower, Pagenaud used what he mistakenly thought was shower gel. It was, in fact, a glitter gel used by artists for dance recitals.

Simon PagenaudAfter frantically researching how to remove massive amounts of glitter, Pagenaud managed to scrub 90 percent from his face and hair, but didn’t have time to attend to the rest of his body. The cold Paris weather helped mask the problem with a scarf and a jacket, but even 18 hours later his smiling face still had more sparkle than usual.

As Pagenaud drove a rental car through the insanity that is Paris traffic on route to Poitiers and Montmorillon, he explained how driving in the city was the perfect training ground for an IndyCar championship.

“Paris is like Indy car racing,” he said. “There’s a lot of traffic and you have to believe that you are never in the wrong. That’s the only way you are going to get through. If someone cuts you off, he’s wrong. If you cut someone off, he’s wrong. If you are going too fast, they are wrong. If you missed a turn because you weren’t paying attention, they are all wrong. That’s the key here. And if there’s a gap, even if your car doesn’t fit in it, try to fit the car in it. That is how it should be done.”

Somewhere along that drive, the rental car suffered minor cosmetic damage. The Penske driver joked that, just as in a race, it was surely not his fault.

The importance of his championship achievement began to hit home for Pagenaud when he arrived at AutoHebdo magazine headquarters and saw its wall adorned with a front page cover showing his face and championship trophy.

Simon PagenaudThroughout the media tour, returning to nearly every newspaper, TV and radio station he had visited while building his career, the writers and editors reminisced and pointed out old hero cards or photos still on the wall of their offices signed by a young up-and-coming French driver named Simon Pagenaud. Smiles and big pats on the back punctuated his return as INDYCAR champion.

Then there was a two-page spread in the national paper l’Équipe, as well as a feature in La Nouvelle République. The enthusiasm shared by French media and fans for news of his success and return home became more evident as Pagenaud had to hunt down and buy his own newspaper copies since no one wanted to part with their own to be signed by their hometown hero.

While an autograph session at his father’s grocery store and two official ceremonies celebrating his championship homecoming, held at Poitiers and Montmorillon city hall, were humbling to an appreciative Pagenaud, it was the outpouring of support by the hundreds of friends and family attending the latter that brought out the emotional impact of his achievement.

Pagenaud stood for more than four hours to make sure that each request for a photo and autograph was fulfilled. There was nothing more important to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion than to make sure every single person in Montmorillon understood the significance of his coming home to share his crowning achievement with the people who mattered most.

INDYCAR is compiling a complete video recap of Pagenaud’s French homecoming and media tour. It will be posted on INDYCAR's social channels soon, but in the meantime, get a sneak peek here:

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