It’s late at night and Simon Pagenaud’s cell phone is buzzing.
His girlfriend, Hailey McDermott, doesn’t pay it any mind. She knows it’s his Team Penske engineer, Ben Bretzman.
“He’s his ‘girlfriend,’” McDermott said. “I come second. Me and Ben’s wife come second. At 12:30 at night, if I hear Simon’s phone go off, I know it’s not another girl. It’s Ben.”
The bond of racing together since 2010 includes countless late-night chats between Pagenaud and Bretzman. Pagenaud laughs about McDermott’s assessment. Guilty as charged.
“That is true,” Pagenaud said. “Whitney, Ben’s wife, she says the same thing. We’ll be texting late at night. I’ll come up with an idea. I’ll be texting him or he’ll be texting back. Sometimes, I’ll watch a race on TV and then bother him for like three hours on the phone. It’s good. That’s how we work. We do a lot of texting.”
It’s not the normal coupling, considering Pagenaud is from France and Bretzman grew up in Florida, but it sure works. In their second season with Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske, Pagenaud is the Verizon IndyCar Series 2016 points leader with three victories.
Bretzman, 35, says it’s all about instilling confidence in his driver. That starts with listening to Pagenaud, 32, at all hours.
“It’s like a mind meld,” Bretzman said.
They live about eight miles apart in North Carolina, so it’s like they’re never far apart. When they’re not racing, they share a healthy sense of humor.
“I’m the inside spoon,” Bretzman said.
On track, communication is still key.
“I listen to him a lot and we’ve got a good working relationship and we have a personal relationship, too,” Bretzman said. “I’m not very selfish as an engineer and I think he likes that. I’m willing to listen to what the driver says.
“The whole thing is about giving the driver confidence and understanding what it takes to get there. Some of getting driver confidence is listening to the driver and trusting what he’s saying as opposed to what the race car is saying.”
After three years working for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Pagenaud signed with Team Penske before 2015. Bretzman was also available. The engineer had contract offers from Penske and Schmidt. Pagenaud wanted to keep their partnership going.
“All of those years we worked together, for me, it’s all of that knowledge, that database that we’ve built together,” Pagenaud said. “It was important to keep going and we get along really well. I trust him. He trusts me. It’s working well.”
The marriage didn’t produce any wins in 2015. Pagenaud had arrived at Team Penske with four race victories the previous two seasons.
Bretzman insists the pressure to perform for the most successful team in the series didn’t create doubt in what could be accomplished. Pagenaud had fast cars but lacked the finishing results. Four top-five runs included a pair of thirds.
“We were nervous from the fact that the last three years we were winning races and scoring points. Why was it different in 2015?” Bretzman said. “We weren’t nervous. Roger wasn’t nervous about it. The skill was there. A driver doesn’t lose his talent all of a sudden. The lap times were there. We were still getting fast laps. It was just, ‘What do we need to do to finish the program?’”
They figured it out this season. Pagenaud was second in each of the series’ first two races, then won three in a row at Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Although he’s had only one podium in the past four races — a second in the second Chevrolet Dual in Detroit — Pagenaud has a healthy points lead, 74 ahead of teammate Helio Castroneves and 81 in front of teammate Will Power heading to Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“So far, so good this year,” Bretzman said. “The approach is the same. The approach on how we go about business isn’t any different than when we started in 2010. Last year, there were so many stupid rain races and random yellow races. We’ve won more races this year because they’ve been more normal.”
In addition to the race results, Pagenaud has won four poles this season. He had two in his Indy car career heading into this year.
“The fact that we’re going for more poles this year is a big deal,” Bretzman said. “That means we’re beating (Scott) Dixon and Power for pole position. That’s a new thing to us. We could always win races, but going to get poles is a nice thing. Plus, it’s extra points.”
Off track, Pagenaud and Bretzman can be quite dissimilar. Bretzman teases that Pagenaud has become “Americanized,” but when they met in 2009 while racing in sports cars, the driver “seemed French.”
“I am?” an amused Pagenaud said of the “Americanized” claim. “I think he’s the one becoming French, him and I hanging out. He seems to enjoy a Frenchman. I even managed to get him to Paris once.”
Bretzman and McDermott chide Pagenaud for being a bit of a penny pincher. And Pagenaud’s two “girlfriends” love turning up the volume on their rap music, which drives the Frenchman crazy.
“He is money conscious,” McDermott said. “And the dog (Norman) is getting a little out of hand. He’s becoming obsessed.”
Norman is a Jack Russell Terrier puppy that Pagenaud gave McDermott as an April birthday present. But Norman and Simon are inseparable at times. He brought the dog to the post-race news conference at Detroit. A recent video shows them riding a skateboard together.
Not that Pagenaud is ready to shift gears and become a father any time soon.
“He’ll work up to it,” Bretzman said.
Last year in May, Bretzman became a father for the first time with the arrival of a daughter.
“I don’t know if I’m changed,” he said. “Just less sleep.”
That means he’s typically awake in the midnight hour when Simon buzzes yet again.
“I’m probably up because my child is up,” Bretzman said. “It’s a 24-hour, seven-day program.”