Simon Pagenaud earns his place in Indianapolis 500 history

3 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS – When Simon Pagenaud arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10 to begin preparations for the IndyCar Grand Prix followed by the Indianapolis 500, the driver from France was presumably racing to save his ride at Team Penske.

Pagenaud had a 22-race winless streak and had not won a race since the 2017 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. A plausible scenario of speculation had Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi taking over Pagenaud’s No. 22 Chevrolet in 2020 because both drivers are in the final year of their contracts.

Rossi is extremely loyal to Honda, but who turns down a ride offer from Roger Penske?

Seventeen days later, Pagenaud, 35, has gone from being a driver with a long winless streak to the hottest driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. He won his first race in 23 attempts with a May 11 victory in the IndyCar Grand Prix, followed that the next week with the pole positions for the Indy 500 and won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on Sunday.

It was an epic battle between Pagenaud and his supposed heir apparent in Rossi. The two drivers traded the lead over and over throughout the final 13 laps until Pagenaud made the race-winning pass in Turn 3 near the end of Lap 198.

A lap and a half later, Pagenaud was the Indy 500 winner.

The celebration began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s “Yard of Bricks” and lasted well into the night. The Team Penske celebration was at Punch Bowl Social in downtown Indianapolis, a popular nightspot that feature games and other events.

According to his fiancé, Hailey McDermott, they returned home shortly after midnight because a very busy week is ahead for the newest Indy 500 winner.

“My timeline has been busy,” Pagenaud said Monday morning at the scene of his greatest victory. “I haven’t had much time to myself. But I tell you, it’s all so sweet. Such great emotions, being able to savor the biggest race in the world. It’s quite amazing.

“It’s been a phenomenal following by the media. Yesterday we actually had seven hours of nonstop media after the race. I got back to my motorhome at 10 p.m. Got a quick steak, because I was a little hungry, then straight to celebrate with Team Penske downtown. Short night, but I feel real energized. I’m just feel so blessed and grateful for what happened obviously.

“This morning, I woke up after two hours of sleep, going to the photos, with no bags under my eyes surprisingly. It’s the sweetest photos you can do with your team, with your family. It’s great to be able to take that moment with them and just keep memories because it’s once in a lifetime, these kind of experiences.

“Obviously super proud. It’s good to be here.”

NBC’s first telecast of the Indianapolis 500 generated a 15 percent increase over last year’s telecast on ABC.

The telecast delivered a 3.86 overnight rating, (vs. 3.35 on ABC last year) and the best in three years. The overnight rating peaked in the final quarter-hour at 4.56 when Pagenaud outdueled Rossi to win his first Indy 500.

This was the highest overnight for a Sunday afternoon sports event on NBC in more than four months (Jan. 6, NFL Wild Card, 22.9) and the highest overnight for a sports event on Sunday.

The overnight rating does not include digital consumption. Final viewership, including digital, is expected later today.

Pagenaud woke up to about 700 text messages. He also said his emails have “blown up” with congratulatory messages.

“It’s quite phenomenal,” he said. “I had a lot of messages from friends. Obviously, when everybody woke up France, it was kind of a shock. Obviously a lot of messages from all my friends in America and other countries.

“What an incredible day. It’s difficult to fathom still. I haven’t had time to watch the race. That’s what I usually do. I go home always, I study the race, I look at it. If it’s a win, it’s obviously more enjoyable. Really want to watch this one and take the time for it.

I have other duties right now. I have to represent. I’m very proud to be an Indy 500 champion. I’ll do my best, like I do in the racecar, give it my 100 percent, be the best I can to represent you guys, represent the sport. To be honest, it’s the biggest spectacle in racing.”

One of those messages was from the President of the United States, who placed a phone call to team owner Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After speaking with President Trump for a few moments, Penske handed the phone to Pagenaud.

“President (Donald) Trump called me yesterday,” Pagenaud said. “I hope (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron will call me, as well. We’ll see what happens.

“I’m very lucky with Fred Lissalde, the CEO of BorgWarner is French. He said to me today, said it several times, ‘We’re going to take the Borg-Warner (Trophy) to France, celebrate there.’ That’s a phenomenal thing to do. I’m very thankful he wants to do that.

“BorgWarner is phenomenal for the sport. A trophy that exists since 1933. To think I’m going to be on it, we’re going to take it to France, probably the first time — must be the first time it’s ever going to happen.

“Again, I’m very blessed. That would be really cool to take it to the Champs-Elysées, celebrate with French people. We’ll see what happens.”

The victory has made Pagenaud a sports hero in France. He became the first Indianapolis 500 winner from France since Rene Thomas in 1914.

Pagenaud joined the ranks of Formula One’s Alain Prost of Formula One and rally racer Sebastien Loeb as great racing drivers from France.

“Those are big names, big names,” Pagenaud said. “Sebastien Loeb to me is the greatest driver ever. Rally is pure instinct driving, no calculation, just pure driving, being able to listen to the instruction and do it, in the dust, gravel, snow, tarmac, it’s special. You have to give it to him. I’m a big fan of Sebastien.

“Alain Prost was fighting with my idol (Ayrton) Senna, so it’s very special to be compared to them. I’ve got a lot to accomplish still. I don’t think of myself like that. I’m going to set myself more goals. That’s my nature.

“We’ll see when it retire, I can reflect on it later.”

In 1913, Jules Goux of France drank six bottles of champagne en route to his victory in the third Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud enjoys a good red wine, but on Sunday, he preferred the taste of milk.

“It was definitely amazing to drink the milk,” Pagenaud said. “To me tradition is everything, just like red wine can be. Tradition is everything. Being able to drink the milk yesterday was better than any wine or any champagne.”

Pagenaud arrived in Indianapolis fighting for his job. He leaves the capital city of Indiana leading the NTT IndyCar Series championship and is the hottest driver in the series.

He will be honored at Monday night’s Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, where Pagenaud was awarded more than $2.6 million.

His springtime trip to Indiana has given the 35-year-old a renewed focus heading into this weekend’s doubleheader in Detroit – the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Tuesday morning, it’s back to business,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve got to focus on the championship. It’s been my goal the whole year. I’ve said it coming in, that I want to fight for the championship this year again. I want to do it again. I’ve done it once. I can do it twice. It’s just a matter of putting everything together, being consistent.

“I think it’s a year where you have to be consistently up front. Obviously we already have two wins. Realistically you want a minimum of three to have a good chance for the championship. We are almost right there. But you need consistency in the end.

“I think we’re ahead of the program. We’re already leading the championship now. The cars are behaving really well. It’s improving. It’s going to keep improving throughout the season as we go through.

“I’ve got a lot of expectation. Certainly feel like we have everything going in the right direction right now with Team Penske. The development is good. My teammates, we’re pushing each other really well. It’s fun.

“I enjoy my job more than ever. I’ve got so much drive. My motivation is the highest it’s ever been. I’m hungry. I want to win.

“Now I’m free. I can really focus on winning and going forward.”

Winning has allowed Pagenaud to free his mind of the challenges that come without a victory in more than one full season. His victory two weeks ago in the IndyCar Grand Prix started a roll of momentum that swept him to victory in the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

He is heading to Detroit at full throttle. He has a one-point lead over teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished fourth behind Pagenaud, Rossi and Takuma Sato in the Indy 500. Pagenaud has a 22-point lead over Rossi.

Pagenaud has gone from afterthought to legitimate championship contender over the past 17 days in Indianapolis.

He doesn’t expect to slow down anytime soon.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
0 Comments

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”