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.”

Pfaff Motorsports parks in premier territory while punching above its weight in GTD Pro

Pfaff Motorsports Rolex 24
Jordan Lenssen/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After his team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the most stirring slam-bang finishes in the storied endurance race’s history, Steve Bortolotti’s phone blew up.

The general manager of Pfaff Motorsports received 370 text messages about the No. 9 Porsche being driven to the GTD Pro victory by Mathieu Jaminet over the No. 2 KCMG Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (who helped Pfaff win the 2021 GTD title).

“I’ve never had my phone blow up like ever,” Bortolotti told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘What the (expletive)? This is better than the actual race! It was awesome.”

His phone blew up again last week at Daytona International Speedway – but for an altogether different reason.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

The Pfaff Motorsports truck driver proudly had sent a photo to the team’s group text chat, showing that the No. 9 was parked directly beside the gleaming haulers for the new Porsche Penske Motorsports.

As the defending series champions in GTD Pro, Pfaff was situated beside the nine cars in the ballyhooed new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category with the next-best spot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship garage.

It’s indicative of Pfaff’s impressive growth curve over less than a decade in IMSA, building in stature from plaid-clad Canadian underdog to GT powerhouse while continuing to punch above its weight against the biggest factory teams in sports-car racing.

Steve Bortolotti, general manager of Pfaff Motorsports

“Everyone is like, ‘That’s awesome, we’re on the front side of the garage!’ ” Bortolotti said. “That’s really cool for my guys. I never even thought that it mattered. I just was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and people around because we’re beside Penske.’ They’re looking at it as, ‘This is really cool and something I’ve always wanted.’ You really don’t know what motivates people, and they probably didn’t know they wanted that until they had it.”

Bortolotti has been leading Pfaff Motorsports, which is based in a 20,000-square-foot shop 20 minutes north of Toronto, since its inception in 2015.

Chris Pfaff (the team’s CEO and president) entered sports car racing as a sponsor promoting the Pfaff Automotive dealership network in Canada. He founded Pfaff Motorsports after discovering many of the Pfaff Automotive employees worked in racing on the side (and often competing against the Pfaff-sponsored car).

Within five years, the team realized its goal of reaching IMSA’s national series in 2019. Within the next three years, it had two championships (in GTD and GTD Pro the past two years) and the 2022 Rolex 24 victory.

“It all starts with a vision to know what you’re striving for or else, racing becomes a fast waste of money if you aren’t chasing something,” Bortolotti said.

It’s been a memorable run for a team that has only seven full-time employees and celebrates its gritty spirit as a Porsche customer team beating factory-backed operations with budgets that could be up to 50 percent larger. On the Pfaff Motorsports website, all of its team members are featured with mug shots and titles – as well as “Turbo Ted,” the shop dog.

Pfaff Motorsports general manager Steve Bortolotti chats on a golf cart in front of the Pfaff Motorsports, hauler, which is parked next to the Porsche Penske Motorsport truck in the Daytona garage (Nate Ryan).

Bortolotti is proud that the team has been kept mostly intact over the past eight years with technical director Andrew Marangoni (who started as an engineer) and car chief Corey Whiteman among the stalwarts in another example of quality over quantity.

“I’d rather have seven extremely talented people,” Bortolotti said. “I’d put my seven up against anyone … give me seven in those equal jobs in other teams, I bet mine are better. I think that confidence I have in them, and they need confidence in themselves but can’t be cocky. There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m glad that most of my guys are confident in their abilities and not here to become celebrities. They’re just here to win races.”

With an influx of cash and staffing this year in GTP (which added Porsche and BMW), Bortolotti fretted that some of his team would be peeled off by the premier prototype division, but its tight-knit culture held firm against recruitment from the factory programs.

“One gentleman was approached hard by two manufacturers and told them ‘I go racing because I enjoy it here,’ ” Bortolotti said. “He’s worked for those programs, in Formula One and elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, I wake up every day and enjoy doing stuff with (Pfaff). It’s not worth another however many thousands to (leave Pfaff).’ That was nice to hear we’re building something great.

“I’m very adamant there aren’t a lot of egos within our team. I feel that’s a huge detriment in racing.”


Pfaff’s lowest moment came just before its biggest successes.

The COVID-19 pandemic was doubly hard for the team, which faced the specter of economic hardship layoffs mixed with quarantine restrictions that lasted through June 2021 and made travel extremely difficult across the border.

But Pfaff soldiered through and added Vanthoor (who was left without a ride Porsche shuttering its GTLM team) to pair with Zacharie Robichon for the 2021 championship season.

“The worst year of my life was 2020,” Bortolotti said. “I never knew if we were going to get back here. A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices. Everyone took it with a smile on their face. Leaders of companies are really judged on how they handle those situations.

The Pfaff Motorsports No. 9 Porsche on track during the 2023 Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona (IMSA).

“As much as it hurt not racing in 2020, it was the way we handled it and came back, which allowed us to continue building what we had started in ’19 and ’20. If you look at ’21, you see a huge ramp up of our results after Watkins Glen (in late June). We finally got to go back to testing and learning and getting back in the swing of things.”

After winning the 2022 Rolex 24 and the GTD Pro championship with Pfaff, its trio of Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr moved on to Porsche Penske Motorsport in GTP. It’s another sign of Pfaff’s appeal to world-class drivers.

“They want our car,” Bortolotti said. “I feel this pressure that these guys are finding me on Instagram and DM’ing to request us. That’s kind of cool. You have the seat that everyone is wanting.”

Steve Bortolotti, Pfaff Motorsports general manager

He believes the team’s success of as a customer team that can beat factory-backed operations is a preview of the future in GT professional racing.

“They’re spending how many of millions to compete, and we’re paying them to do it,” Bortolotti said. “So from a business standpoint, it’s quite attractive for them to be in this situation.

“I think the days of a full factory effort, as financial changes happen in a global economy, are numbered. The way we’ve done it with commercial support and raising money and partnering with a factory where they put some in, we put some in. I think that’s truly the way forward in pro level GT racing because there is something to sell. There is no reason for one manufacturer to have to pay for it all themselves. It doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day if one person is spending $5M to go racing.”


The team will have a factory-level talent with the return of Vanthoor as its endurance driver in a lineup that also includes Patrick Pilet (a 2015 GTLM champion and 2014 Rolex 24 winner) and Klaus Bachler. In addition to new drivers, the team also has a new car in the Porsche 911 GT3 R (992).

There was no bitterness over a reunion between the team and Vanthoor, who was lobbying Bortolotti to return just months after his heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Rolex 24.

Daytona is the only long-distance race missing from the CV for Vanthoor, who has won the 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and Nurburgring. The Belgian driver told NBC Sports he “cried like a baby” on the cooldown lap and then needed 10 minutes alone to regain composure.

But he then sent congratulations to his former and future team.

“With Mathieu and Pfaff, that was the first thing I did was congratulate them and give them a handshake because they are very good friends,” Vanthoor said. “And we were there trying to win and they fair and square won. There’s nothing to be angry about; I have a ton of respect for them. And that was it.

“There were no hard feelings. I was very happy for Pfaff to win it.”

Laurens Vanthoor has rejoined Pfaff Motorsports after a one-year absence (Jordan Lenssen/IMSA).

Bortolotti said Vanthoor requested a spreadsheet with mugshots of all the Pfaff team members so he could greet everyone by name upon his return.

“After (the 2022 Rolex 24), I gave him a big hug, and I was heartbroken for him because I knew how bad he wanted it, how hard he tried and how great a fight he put up,” Bortolotti said. “I’m excited to have him back. He’s a great guy. We want redemption for him as a team as much as he wants redemption for the finish last year.

“It’s almost been a cool way to motivate our guys to try to do it again because we got it last year, let’s get it for Larry this year. We’re extremely motivated to get him his Rolex this year because we get ours last year.”

A Pfaff Motorsports mechanic works on the No. 9 Porsche during a December test at Daytona (Jordan Lenssen/IMSA).