Things couldn’t get much better for Simon Pagenaud at the midpoint of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The Frenchman is thriving in his second year with Team Penske, piloting the No. 22 Chevrolet to three wins and three second-place finishes through eight completed races. He leads the standings by 80 points heading to the KOHLER Grand Prix weekend, June 24-26 at Road America in Wisconsin.
Pagenaud says he draws inspiration from his racing idol, the late Ayrton Senna, three-time Formula One world champion considered among the greatest to ever drive a race car.
“He's been my idol, my role model, my life model really since I was a little kid," Pagenaud, 32, said. “I think he is the reason I got interested in racing. Even as a living person, he still had that mythical attitude in him. I think he had this special aura around him.”
Before his death at the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994, Senna spoke frequently about his ability to focus so intently in the cockpit that he could tune out the rest of the world. Pagenaud said he emulates Senna’s strategy.
“I felt attracted to what he was talking about,” Pagenaud said. “His ability to go deeper in his thoughts and concentration level was very intriguing.
“I started experiencing it pretty early at times, not on purpose, but in my go-kart. Then I started to get very interested in the technical side of racing on my go-kart as well. A bit like he used to, I used to work on my go-kart as well, just to try to optimize it.
“As I started racing, I figured that the physical aspect was important, but the mental side of things was probably the most important because your brain commands your body, so you basically need to train your brain to do what you want it to do.”
Pagenaud said that training includes meditation. It’s a tool he learned early on that he needed to calm the “excitable boy” in him.
“I've had to channel my energy,” he said. “When I was a kid, I was a little bit too emotional, too excited in the race car, but even before that. (It’s) something I've been working on for years, channeling my energy, trying to find that path to ultimate concentration.
“It's happening more and more after years of practice, for sure. When you have confidence like we do on the (No.) 22 team, it makes it easy to trigger. So certainly I've had a few instances this year already of really good moments within myself. It's discipline, in my opinion, that gets me there and can get any driver there. But it takes many, many years to control it.”
Pagenaud said he’s felt a number of those zen-like moments during what to date has been his most successful season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But if he’s ever feeling out of sorts, all Pagenaud need do is think about his idol, Senna.
“He's definitely my inspiration,” Pagenaud said. “Sometimes when I need more motivation, I go and watch movies of him. I read the Senna book. That's how I find motivation sometimes.”
It appears to be working.