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Q&A: Simon Pagenaud heading into final quarter of IndyCar season

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During a chat with Simon Pagenaud on Wednesday, the Verizon IndyCar Series points leader was his usual mix of reflective, candid, funny and insightful as he prepares for the final four races of the 2016 season.

Ordinarily we’d break this out and we did so in looking at Pagenaud’s back and its status heading into Pocono Raceway this weekend. On the whole, here’s more about the driver who is determined to win his first series championship. He leads teammate Will Power by 58 points going into this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

MST: Going back to Mid-Ohio, you had the pain and then made the pass on Will. How did you push through the weekend and then dig deep to make the pass?

Simon Pagenaud: “There was obviously a lot of pain, but there was no doubt in my mind I’d be racing. I didn’t get to this point to give up now.

“I wasn’t going to hedge the issue. But the paramedics did a tremendous job helping me through. It wasn’t the most comfortable weekend! But it gave me extra motivation… it showed what I’m made of and my dedication.”

“It was awesome, right?

“I think that was a very important move at this point in the championship. Like Will said, I was pretty determined. And it’s like he did at [race two of] Detroit.

“When you’re in that position you have to take it. I had to show some authority. But Will played it really well. I thought it was great racing and it was a great, clean battle.”

MST: You’ve been in title-contending situations before in other series. Do those help you know heading into the final four races of 2016?

SP: “I love it. I love these kind of situations. Everyone asks about pressure, but I love it. I embrace it. I love these situations. It’s exactly why I do this. It’s now rewarding, because you’re in a position to fight for what your dream is. I actually perform better in these situations… I need pressure. That’s what I’m thinking.

“Going back to Petit Le Mans [2010] winning the championship, that was one of my most aggressive races. It didn’t need to be. Everything flew so well for me. Definitely, experience from past is helping. Honestly, I’m just doing my thing.”

MST: Let’s flash back to 2006. You were the new kid, longer haired, never raced in America before, then you won the Atlantic Championship. That was 10 years ago. What was that experience like?

SP: “It was my first full year – I had to win, otherwise I’d go back to France and do another job! And that was way more stressful than anything experiencing now.

“That was… ‘This is gonna be your life for the next 20 years,’ or you go do something else! It was enjoyable, but it was very stressful. It laid the roots of what I built the last 10 years. A lot of dedication and determination, and driving with all the guts.

“Yet I was trying to be smart. That year in Atlantic was about having consistency and being smart… I couldn’t [screw] it up really!

“I only won once and Graham [Rahal] won like five times.”

MST: Gil de Ferran has been your mentor for a while. He won his first title at Team Penske. Do you two talk about that particular moment?

SP: “I talk to Gil all the time! But we can’t talk anything about details, or anything confidential to the race team… that’s just not something we do. He’s been with Penske before. He is still my Yoda! His advice means a lot to me. Sometimes we don’t always agree, and he says fine! To me, he is a great mentor. He reflects on things I’ve done in the past, and he gives even better advice now than back in the day. I respect the way he looks at racing.

“When I first moved to the team we talked about that transition. But it was a lot easier for Gil back then, because the car was already going. It was a different time. No issues to get going. Getting a championship first year [in 2000] was incredible. Here obviously it has been a different situation, we had to build the 22 team, and a four-car team. It’s quite a bit more heavy.”

MST: The next three races will be pivotal. Have you guys found something to improve the car for Pocono and what do you think Watkins Glen will be like, having tested there?

SP: “At Indy, right before the race, we found something we really liked. If we didn’t have the mechanical [issue] I thought we could fight for the win. It did feel awesome in Indy. Our setup in Indy was almost identical to Pocono last year. Pocono is one of my favorite speedways. The Honda packages should be good.

“Last year at Pocono it was definitely difficult toward the end. There were a lot of yellows, and tough to get in a rhythm, trying to fuel save. You gain so much by fuel saving. People may not want to lead… it bunches it up and creates issues. Same problem with fuel conservation!

“Watkins Glen… oh man, it’s absolutely nuts!! The tarmac design they have is really grippy. The tires are very consistent. Not much degradation. There’s very high pace and the commitment level is what impresses me the most. So much downforce but also so much grip, it’s doubly what we get! There’s a video game kinda feel! You brake as little as possible. It’s hard to feel the car. Push those commitment limits, float with the limits. The reaction is really fast.

“Passing will be difficult… but you can make it happen before the Bus Stop. Push to Pass is awesome for acceleration. It might be more of an advantage uphill. Should be good device. Honestly… there could be a big game of downforce levels. Some might trim out, or put more on.”

MST: How much more at home do you feel in Charlotte in year two compared to last year?

SP: “It’s funny, my dad’s just visiting in Charlotte right now. Since I have the home here, he comes more often to the house than the races. There’s more time to spend, and there’s extra bedrooms!

“But certainly my life is evolving a lot. We moved into the house two years ago. Being a homeowner is quite a change! This new area is something important in life. Our dog, Norman is a joy to us. So he helps me with other things besides just racing.

“I’m evolving as a human and as a man, and evolving as a race car driver. With the support of Hailey [McDermott, girlfriend of four years]… I have a much better balance.

“Time has helped be better focused as well. I’m in a very good spot.”

IndyCar’s season finale at St. Pete approved to have 20,000 fans

IndyCar St. Pete fans
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The NTT IndyCar Series’ season finale will be permitted up to 20,000 fans, making the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg possibly the circuit’s most well-attended race of 2020. The race originally was scheduled as the season opener before being moved to Oct. 25 because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

IndyCar has enjoyed limited crowds at Road America, Iowa Speedway, Gateway, Mid-Ohio and this weekend’s doubleheader races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which could have up to 10,000 fans in attendance. That had been the largest maximum grandstand crowd for an IndyCar race this season.

At a St. Petersburg city council meeting Thursday, Mayor Rick Kriseman approved plans by race organizers Green Savoree Racing Promotions to hold the Oct. 23-25 weekend for the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Pete with 20,000 fans who would follow health and safety protocols that include mandatory temperature checks and masks.

 “My thanks to Green Savoree Racing Promotions and IndyCar for their flexibility and resilience during this challenging time,” Kriseman said in a release. “I know that everyone is excited to get back on the track in St. Pete. I can’t wait for Oct. 23rd. I know everyone will embrace this race the St. Pete way, adhering to the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Let’s have some great racing in the Sunshine City.”

Paddock and the pit lane will remain closed to spectators, and social distancing of at least 6 feet will be observed on site.

“Our entire team greatly appreciates the patience and understanding of our ticket holders as we worked through this process with Mayor Kriseman, City Council and local health officials,” Kim Green, co-owner, chairman and CEO of Green Savoree Promotions. “It’s important for everyone who attends to read and follow all the COVID-19 protocols to contribute to a fun, safe and successful event for us all.”

“The ongoing guidance and support of Mayor Kriseman, City Council, and the City of St. Petersburg’s event team have been phenomenal,” said Kevin Savoree, co-owner, president and COO of Green Savoree Promotions. “We also would not be in this position to move this spring tradition to fall without Firestone’s unwavering commitment and dedication. It’s going to be a terrific weekend again in downtown St. Pete in three weeks featuring world-class racing from INDYCAR.”