Mother's calming influence helps guide Pagenaud to championship

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SONOMA, Calif. — As Team Penske crew members hopped the Sonoma Raceway pit wall to begin celebrating Simon Pagenaud’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship a week ago today, one smiling woman was content to stand back from the euphoric masses.

Sylvie Pagenaud wiped tears from her eyes and took it all in.

Her son had just won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to complete what he would later describe as his childhood dream. Simon’s jubilant sister, Julie, joined the pit party. Simon’s father, Christian, could finally exhale in relief. Christian had been frazzled by the pressure of this season-ending race more than anyone else.

Not Sylvie, 59, formerly a dancer and now a choreographer back in France. Nobody felt lighter on their feet.

“Oh yes, it’s awesome,” she said. “I can dance. I can play and I can laugh. I’m very light and very happy for him.”

Sylvie’s career taught her how to stay calm.

“I breathe,” she said, demonstrating with a modest exhale. “I move and I try to have my mind the most quiet. I work a lot with my brain.”

Simon’s live-in girlfriend, Hailey McDermott, attested to Sylvie’s influence on the champion.

“He’s been surprisingly calm, a lot better than I’ve been,” McDermott said amid the celebration chaos. “The pressure definitely grew and grew and grew. I thought this weekend, it would be a lot higher pressure for him, but it was like just another day. He did very well, kept it together, was very confident, calm, cool and collected. I was quite impressed because I know I couldn’t have held it together like that.”

Because this is what Simon so desperately wanted, to succeed in America as a race car driver, his family took stock in that dream, too. Christian literally did, loaning his son money a decade ago. Christian owns a franchise in the E.Leclerc French megastore chain. If Simon succeeded, he would pay his father back. If the endeavor didn’t pay off, the aspiring driver who was once a business school student would come home to work in the family business.

Sylvie, the artist, raised her son to have creative ambition.

“I’m very happy because he lives for his passion and I know it’s most important in his life,” she said. “For me, it is a principal aspect of the life, to live out your passion, live with happiness and wellness.”

Simon possessed that infectious zeal at an early age after inheriting his father’s affinity for cars. The family started making road trips for go-kart racing when Simon was 7. 

“He was driving all the time,” older sister Julie said. “When he was a child, we had an old car that was parked at home. We were taking it to go get the letters in the mailbox.”

Because Julie, 35, is a kindred sibling spirit when it comes to competitiveness, they battled each other to drive to get the mail.

“Once it was me, once it was him,” she said. “We drove the car around the house in the garden. We’d go to the letter box and come back to the kitchen and give the letters to our mother.”

Simon gave himself homework after every race, sometimes at the expense of ignoring his sister’s request to help around the house.

“After races, he was writing down in a paper what was good, what was wrong, the setting up of the go-kart or how he felt in the car, etc.,” Julie said. “I would tell him, ‘Please, set up the table.’ He would say, ‘But I’ve got to work.’ And I was just like, ‘Come on, you’re 14, you don’t have any work.’”

Simon hasn’t forgotten. He acknowledged his family’s sacrifice after winning the Verizon P1 Award for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma pole position.

“I’m just enjoying myself and it’s great to have them around to support me,” the 32-year-old driver said. “They’ve been supporters of my career since the very beginning. Getting to this level, having my parents here and remembering the memories of my first laps in a go-kart, it’s pretty cool, for sure. It’s been a long journey.

“The excitement, the smiles, sometimes the tears, the emotion, this life is such a rollercoaster. I think my dad is having a harder time with it because he’s more of a pragmatic person. My mom is more of an artist because she was a dancer. I think she can deal with it better than he does. He keeps it inside and gets very nervous, very anxious.”

When the race was won, all Christian could say was, “Oui, oui, is good.”

Sylvie was sure her son would prevail in what amounted to a title dual with teammate Will Power, the 2014 series champion and only other competitor in the hunt heading into the finale. She predicted the victory with certainty the day before.

When proven prophetic, she described the experience as “the adventure of our life.”

She approached team owner Roger Penske, shook his hand and sweetly said, “Thank you so much.”

“Thank you,” Penske said with an appreciative grin.

As the dark of night loomed and the Sonoma Raceway lights seemed to dim, Simon draped a French flag over his shoulders and never tired of taking an endless series of group pictures with the championship trophy. His team struck the pose, then shuffled off the stage. The next group, family and friends. Then sponsors. Still more people. More pictures.

Simon loved every minute of it. He wasn’t the only one.

Standing off in the distance, still light on her feet, Sylvie beamed in the shadows. 

“I’m very proud of the man he’s becoming,” she said.

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