Pagenaud’s first win validates his return to IndyCar

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The question with Simon Pagenaud, when he made his full-time return to open-wheel racing at the beginning of 2012, was not “if” but “when” he’d score his eventual first victory.

When James Hinchcliffe, and later Takuma Sato, beat him to that inaugural triumph earlier this year, there were faint question marks. How could a guy – and team – that was the biggest thorn in the “power teams’” side in 2012 go to relative also-rans not quite in winning contention through the opening part of the season?

If there were any doubts, they were quashed Sunday with Pagenaud finally breaking through in his . This one owed as much to strategy as outright pace, but in the last stint of the race, Pagenaud needed to push like mad to maintain his advantage.

Pagenaud’s Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team opted to start Sunday’s race on Firestone’s alternate red tires, and was able to get rid of them after the caution-filled first half of the race. From there, Pagenaud could afford to run on the blacks the rest of the way with little dropoff.

The No. 77 HP Honda was a handful on Saturday but the team, led by team manager Rob Edwards and engineer Ben Bretzman, made the necessary changes to turn the car around overnight.

“Yesterday was difficult, but they worked really hard,” Pagenaud said. “My engineer Ben, Rick they were looking through everything, the data, trying to understand what we were missing. I think they went to the hotel at midnight, came back early this morning. They all looked pretty tired, but they said they thought they found it.

“When I jumped in the car for the warmup, it was much better, much improved,” he added. “They made some even bigger changes for the race. The car was incredible for the race.”

Pagenaud ran in the top three until his first pit stop and although he dropped as low as 10th, he snuck back to the lead pack once the second pit stop cycle shook out. While leading at the end, after his stops were complete, he had to maintain focus and not lose sight of the goal.

“They fixed the front wing and we were back out in contention,” Pagenaud noted, since his front wing was damaged in the lap 28 first-turn pileup. “From that moment on, I was like, ‘Just go for it, let’s see what happens.’ We gained a position almost every lap and used the push-to—pass again. We found ourselves in the lead by having such a fast car. Once we were in the lead, it was easier to push and do qualifying laps after qualifying laps.”

For Pagenaud, a four-year sojourn into sports car racing and a variety of other part-time opportunities never squashed his dreams or quests of A. returning, and B. winning in IndyCar. The win came in his 39th career open-wheel start; he also won a Formula Atlantic race at Edmonton in 2006, the year he won that series championship.

“I’m 29; I started racing when I was eight,” Pagenaud said. “My goal was either Formula One or IndyCar. It’s 21 years of hard work, trying to make my dad believe I could make it happen. Then (I had to) have sponsors helping me throughout the young years of my career, then have people like Sam (Schmidt) and Davey (Hamilton) believe in me when I was doing sports cars.

“The last two laps I was quite emotional in the car. It was difficult to stay focused. But it worked out. When I crossed the finish line, it was a sweet moment.”

Female racer makes history with record finishes in dirt national midget events

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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Holly Shelton is riding high after setting a milestone for a female driver in a national midget series feature event on dirt this past weekend.

The Sacramento, California-area resident recorded the highest finish ever for a female dirt national midget series driver with a runner-up finish last Friday at the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget League double-header weekend at Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, Missouri.

Shelton broke her own national record for top finish by a woman in a national dirt event – she finished third in a USAC race at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, last year.

One night after setting her new national record, Shelton and her Keith Kunz Motorsports Toyota roared back Saturday to finish third (started on the outside pole) in the second half of the weekend double-header, making her the first female dirt driver ever on the national midget circuit to earn back-to-back podium finishes.

“It’s cool making history as a female, but my number one thing is I just want to win,” said Shelton, who will be graduating from Cal-State Sacramento with a B.A. in Criminal Justice this fall. “Truthfully, on the track I don’t even remember that I’m a girl. I’m just racing all the guys with the same goal they have – to win.”

Only one other woman has finished second in either a USAC or POWRi midget feature – Sarah McCune at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway in 1999 – but that was on pavement, not dirt.

The record-setting weekend was great consolation for Shelton, who missed three races earlier this season due to surgery and then sat out three other races last month after suffering a race-related concussion.

“It felt good,” she said of her back-to-back podium finishes. “It builds up my confidence. The car is fast and we keep getting better and we want to build on it.”

Shelton was one of four women that competed in midget competition this weekend. The others were 19-year-old Maria Cofer and 16-year-olds Holley Hollan and Presley Truedson.

“It’s awesome seeing all the little girls come up to me excited to see me at the track,” Shelton said. “Hopefully, it encourages them to pursue their dreams as well and, as the years go on, more girls will get into it.”

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