Simon Pagenaud earns his place in Indianapolis 500 history


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.

Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’


DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”