Simon Pagenaud earns his place in Indianapolis 500 history

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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.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500