Pagenaud hopes to break winless streak with third IndyCar GP win

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INDIANAPOLIS – Simon Pagenaud is often a paradoxical mix between one of the most likable drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series and one of the most determined.

Ask the Team Penske driver a question about the future, and his eyes widen with a smile as he talks about the confidence level that has made him one of the stars in the NTT IndyCar Series.

But ask him to reflect on his winless streak that dates to the final race of the 2017 season, and the Frenchman will firmly say he doesn’t talk about the past. He looks only ahead for more success.

Although Pagenaud doesn’t like to talk about it, others that work with the 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion have their own theories and reasons why the driver has not visited Victory Lane since Sonoma in 2017.

Pagenaud’s rebound race could come in Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Watch the Indy 500 on May 26 on NBC

He is one of just two drivers that have won on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course. Pagenaud won the inaugural road course event at IMS in 2014 when he was driving for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. It was also a key victory in his 2016 IndyCar Series championship season at Team Penske.

Will Power of Team Penske is the only other driver to win the IndyCar GP. He has won it three times, including the past two seasons, and was fastest in the opening practice Friday.

How big would it be for Pagenaud to end his winless streak Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

“It would be huge,” Kyle Moyer, Team Penske IndyCar general manager who also calls Pagenaud’s race strategy, told NBC Sports.com. “It would be absolutely huge for Simon to win any race right now.

“Last year was pretty much an ‘In the dumps’ kind of year. We had some problems and some unforced things that were not under our control. At the same time, you are expected to win at Team Penske. His teammates were winning. We didn’t win a race. We just came off two seasons finishing first and second in the championship and winning eight races.

“We didn’t even sniff it last year. We had two podiums and that was it, and that is really disappointing.”

Moyer and the rest of the team, however, see a faster, more competitive Pagenaud in 2019. Although his qualification performances do not reflect it, Pagenaud has been able to find speed to race from the back to respectable finishes at St. Petersburg (seventh), Barber Motorsports Park (ninth) and Long Beach (sixth).

“Having said that, coming into this year, the speed has been there for him and the whole team,” Moyer said. “He is getting more and more confidence every race. Long Beach and Barber were good races for him.

“If we got a win, that would get us over the hill, and that would make him a championship contender. He can do that. He can win three or four races in a row. I think if we can get the first one, that’s a possibility.”

Moyer believes last year’s car with the lower downforce took more time for Pagenaud to adapt to it compared to his teammates.

“Simon is a very intelligent driver and that is good in some ways and bad in other ways because sometimes, you just have to forget about it and drive the car,” Moyer explained. “I think we raced well last year. We passed more cars than anybody out there by a lot, but you want to get the qualifying right.

“There were some things that bothered him about the new car and to be honest, our cars weren’t very good at street courses. This year, our cars are much better. Simon is more comfortable, and he is driving it now more than the little things.”

It’s an important year for Pagenaud because it’s the final year of his contract with Team Penske. Moyer said that doesn’t matter because a driver is expected to win at Team Penske.

“Any year is important here, especially if it’s a year where you didn’t win any races,” Moyer said. “Roger Penske expects drivers to win and the team expects drivers to win, or you are going to be replaced.

“He needs to get winning, contract or not. That’s what we are paid to do. That is what we are expected to do.

“Does he need to win?

“Yes.”

For Pagenaud, he has time to turn around his fortunes at Team Penske and battle with the likes of his teammates, Will Power and Josef Newgarden as well as rivals Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.

There is no better place to turn around that season than the home of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The grand stage of racing would be a tremendous place to break out of the winless streak beginning with the IndyCar Grand Prix. The 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26 pays double points.

Pagenaud enters the month of May 11thin the standings, but is only 79 points behind the leader, Newgarden.

Ben Bretzman is Pagenaud’s longtime race engineer. He knows what a driver can do and believes he has much left to accomplish with the team.

“This year has been interesting because our pace has been there this year, Bretzman told NBC Sports.com. “Simon is much happier this year, but two of the first four races we have had to start from the back, which hasn’t been good.

“We just have to get a win. Once you get a win, they start to continue on. The car has been quick. Simon has been driving his tail off. The pit stops are good. We just have to get a win to snowball it.

“Once we get a win, it will take off from there. We’ll feel a lot better about things.”

Bretzman sees Pagenaud’s confidence level continue to grow and he’s ready to break out. In a highly-competitive series, however, there is no margin for error.

“We have to get that next level of confidence for him and he will be set,” Bretzman said.

INDYCAR PhotoPagenaud knows he is a good driver, especially on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. He is fully aware that he hasn’t been winning races and is anxious to end that doubt with a decisive performance in Saturday’s race.

He is one of only two drivers that have ever experienced winning the IndyCar Grand Prix.

A third win could be vital.

“A win is always important,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “We are doing this to win races; not to be second or third. In our sport, we lose more often than we win. My biggest goal is to win the Indianapolis 500 and to win another championship.

“It’s a big month with a lot of points available. That is a big focus.

“We are very happy with the way the car handles now. We have been fast all year. At Long Beach, we were back in the game in terms of qualifying. Race pace is not a problem. From now on, the stars have to align, and we will be winning races soon.

“It’s about performance and now, it’s about executing. We have to execute before we can win races. It’s getting there quickly and I’m excited.”

His first win in the inaugural IndyCar Grand Prix in 2013 was important to his career. The win in the IndyCar Grand Prix in 2016 was important for his championship that season.

“It was a big trophy, a big highlight, because it put me on the map in Indianapolis,” Pagenaud said. “It was a good win to have. It was a great race and a great weekend to have, especially with the team I was on that year with Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson.

“In 2016 with Team Penske, I was involved with John Menard and he has become a great friend. It’s the best livery on the grid and it was important to give John Menard something special with his first IndyCar win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Pagenaud would like to forget about the 2018 season, take his lessons and apply them to 2019.

“Last year, we didn’t have enough pace and this year we do,” Pagenaud said. “We didn’t hit the setup. There were two opportunities to win races and I took too many risks.

“That’s racing. There are years where everything works for you and there are years when it’s a little harder. You have to bounce back, keep on going.

“Keep on pushing.”

NBC Sports kicks off more than 100 hours of INDYCAR coverage in May this weekend with live coverage of the INDYCAR Grand Prix from Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, marking the first-ever NTT INDYCAR race to be broadcast on NBC.

NBC Sports’ unprecedented month-long coverage from Indianapolis includes extensive practice, qualifying and race programming across NBC, NBCSN,NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, and NBC Sports Gold’s INDYCAR Pass.

This week’s live coverage from Indianapolis begins Friday at 9 a.m. ET with Practice 1 exclusively on NBC Sports Gold’s INDYCAR Pass, followed by Practice 2 at 12:30 p.m. ET. Coverage continues with qualifying live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass on Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET. INDYCAR Pass will stream warm-up on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. ET prior to race coverage on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

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Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”