Any trip to Indianapolis invigorates Simon Pagenaud.
Before a question-and-answer appearance on the Chevrolet display stage as part of the Performance Racing Industry trade show at the Indiana Convention Center, the Team Penske driver stopped by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum on Thursday.
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion appreciates being recognized and well-received by IMS employees and fans alike.
“I just feel lucky when I come here,” he said. “They recognize me there and I say hi to the workers there and sign a few (die-cast model) cars just because it’s Christmas.
“I take selfies with fans. It’s just fun. You like to give back. It’s definitely different here from anywhere else.”
Before taking center stage at the PRI trade show with Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports, the approachable and affable Pagenaud reiterated what’s important when he’s in the public eye.
“I just want to be myself,” he said. “You don’t become interesting when you start acting unless you’re Brad Pitt.”
The 33-year-old Frenchman smiled at his joke.
“I’m not an actor. I just want to be myself,” he said. “It’s just the passion. I hear it from people when they get to know me, what they see is the passion. I’m just trying to express my passion as much as possible so people see it. It’s the fire that’s inside.”
Mixing in a sense of humor is second nature, too.
“Yeah, if you really look for it, you can find it,” he said, still smiling.
Campbell started off the Q&A session asking Pagenaud about the driver’s background.
“I started racing when I was 7 years old in go-karts,” Pagenaud said. “I didn’t do sprint cars because we didn’t have sprint cars back in France. As you can hear, I’m French. It’s pretty hard to get rid of the accent.”
He raced go-karts until 16, then started competing in single-seat formula cars. He finally made it to the U.S. at 21, and realized his dream of driving an Indy car in 2007 in the final season for the Champ Car World Series. He diverted to sports cars in 2008 – winning the 2010 American Le Mans Series LMP title in 2010 – before returning to Indy cars in 2011. He’s been a full-time driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series since 2012.
Pagenaud mentioned that his journey included starting his own driving school, from which he used the money to support his career.
“It’s been a fantastic life,” he said. “To make it as a professional driver, it’s just very difficult these days. It requires finding a lot of sponsors and you need the right opportunity at the right time being in the right car with the best team. It’s not always easy, but I was very fortunate that we made the right decision with my family to make it happen.”
His first full-time Verizon IndyCar Series ride was with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports in 2012. After winning four races in 2013 and 2014 and finishing in the top five in the championship all three seasons with the team, he joined Team Penske. In his second year driving for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske, Pagenaud had a dream season in 2016 to become a champion.
“It was an incredible year,” Pagenaud said of winning five races.
Chevrolet dominated with 14 wins in 16 races that year, too.
“I realized my dream,” he said. “That was my dream since I was a kid. It was just a dominant season. I won seven poles, five races, which is unseen these days in INDYCAR.”
Campbell interjected, “Think about that. Seven poles. Five wins. There are anywhere from 22 to 26 folks trying to win the race every weekend, obviously at Indy even more (drivers). That’s incredible to do that, week in and week out, that performance. We’re proud of that.”
Pagenaud reiterated how increasingly challenging the series has become between drivers as well as engine manufacturers — Chevrolet defeated Honda for its sixth consecutive manufacturer championship in 2017.
“Everybody is just on it,” Pagenaud said. “If you’re not a little bit more on it than the others, then you’re not going to be the best.”
He was reminded of that reality last season, when Pagenaud finished second in the championship to teammate Josef Newgarden. Pagenaud won the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, but Newgarden finished second in the race to clinch the title by 13 points.
If Newgarden would have finished fourth or worse at Sonoma, Pagenaud would have claimed a second consecutive series title. Pagenaud lost despite winning two races and one pole with six podium finishes, 13 top-five finishes and completing every lap of the 17-race season.
“I learned that you need to reset completely every year at every track and adjust to the place because it may have changed,” Pagenaud said. “The tires may have changed, the aero on the car may have changed, you may have changed. You don’t know. You just have to adapt.
“That’s something I didn’t do too well this past year. At the end of the year, I went away from what we learned in 2016 and the performance came back. In the last race, I had to win the race to (have the chance to) win the championship. I went as hard as I could. We did one more stop than the others. My teammate, Newgarden, finished second and won the championship.”
So close, but the passionate Pagenaud was gracious about the outcome.
“It was such a great battle,” he said. “He deserves it. During the whole season, he did a better job. That’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day, you have to learn from it and go forward, and that’s what I appreciate. I had three fantastic teammates at Team Penske this year with Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves.”
Campbell and Pagenaud discussed the 2018 change in car chassis design and aero kits. The Verizon IndyCar Series is introducing a universal aero kit that all competitors will use in the upcoming season. Feedback from series and manufacturer testing has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The cars will have less downforce, which means the cars are going to slide a little more,” Pagenaud said. “The drivers will have a little bit more effect than the aerodynamics. We welcome that as drivers. I’m really excited about that.”
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