INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owen
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owen

Indy 500 winner Pagenaud switches gears to Detroit

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DETROIT – It was a cold, overcast Thursday, but Simon Pagenaud was “Mr. Sunshine.”

The winner of the 103rdIndianapolis 500 was still living on adrenalin from the biggest victory of his career and going from one personal appearance to the next in advance of this weekend’s Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit.

It’s been a busy week for the first driver from France to win the Indianapolis 500 since Rene Thomas in 1914, but this is what a racing driver lives for.

Bruce Martin Photo“I’ve had six hours of sleep in the last 48 hours, but I don’t care, I can sleep later,” Smiling Simon told NBC Sports.com Thursday as he was about to give Pace Car rides around the temporary street course at Belle Isle to Chevrolet guests on Thursday. “I don’t feel tired at all. After the race, I didn’t feel human. But I got my sleep the last two nights so I’m ready to go.”

Pagenaud must switch gears from the biggest race of the year on the massive 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval to a tight, demanding 2.35-mile, 14-turn temporary street course on an island in the middle of the Detroit River.

On top of that, it’s two races in one week with 70-lap contests on both Saturday and Sunday.

And, it’s the “Boss’s Track” as Pagenaud’s team owner Roger Penske is the track promoter of the Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit.

“It’s pretty simple – we’re racers and all we want to do is set next challenges and next goals,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “I’m ready. I feel so energized. I’ve never felt so much energy in my life.

“Obviously winning carries, me with a lot of momentum. Now, I’m focused on Detroit. It’s a big race for us at Team Penske.

“I won my first IndyCar Series race at Detroit (in 2013); I’d like to add to those numbers.”

Pagenaud scored his first career victory at Detroit when he was with Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports in 2013. That team is now Arrow Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. He moved over to Team Penske in 2015 and has a second-place finish here in 2016 and a fifth-place in 2017.

The Indy 500 winner has won at Detroit in the same season just one time. That was Helio Castroneves in 2001.

There are plenty of past Indy 500 winners that have won at Detroit, including Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, but never in the same season they won the Indy 500.

When Castroneves won Detroit after the Indy 500 in 2001, it was preceded by a race at the Milwaukee Mile short oval the week after Indianapolis.

“I would like to be the first and add numbers again,” Pagenaud said. “This is a fun track. I really enjoy it. This is a very physical weekend. I think that is an advantage for us.

“It is a grueling media tour after the Indy 500, and you go through so much emotion. Some may have struggled through the task at hand. I don’t feel that way at all. I want to get in the race car and have some fun.”

Pagenaud’s whirlwind started after taking the checkered flag in the Indy 500 last Sunday. He was honored at the annual Indy 500 Victory Awards Ceremony at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis Monday night, then flew to New York after it was over.

Tuesday began with a media appearance at 6:45 a.m. and concluded at 11 p.m. that night.

“It was awesome to be welcomed as the Indianapolis 500 winner,” Pagenaud said. “We got to the go to the Empire State Building and saw the set of Jimmy Fallon and also the set for Saturday Night Live on NBC.

“That was very cool as well.

“I was surprised that people knew about me in New York. The most memorable moment, though, was talking to President Trump.”

Because of severe weather on the East Coast, he was unable to get to Texas for another day of media appearances for Texas Motor Speedway on Wednesday.

He arrived in Detroit Thursday morning, attending the annual Detroit Grand Prix Media Luncheon followed by appearances for Chevrolet.

On Friday, Pagenaud strapped himself back in his No. 22 Chevrolet for the first practice for this weekend’s doubleheader.

He also switched into “race driver mode” as he described the challenges of Detroit.

“There are passing opportunities into Turn 3 and Turn 7,” Pagenaud explained. “It’s a good track for the show. It’s grueling for everybody. It’s bumpy. You have to be on top of your game, here.”

It’s been said winning the Indianapolis 500 changes the life of the winner. Pagenaud may discover that over time.

For now, however, He is enjoying the ride and the next stop is Detroit.

“I’m the same guy,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve won the biggest race in the world and that is a huge accomplishment for my name, my family name and my generation to come.

“This is satisfaction, but back to business this week.

“I want to keep rolling. I’m Detroit right now. I want to get going. I love driving and I want to feel those limits. I’ve set myself a new goal and that is to win the championships this year.”

SIMON PAGENAUD’S SCHEDULE SINCE WINNING THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500 ON MAY 26

Sunday:

NBC broadcast sign-off

ESPN SportsCenter

Local and regional TV affiliates

BAND TV

SMT: WDIV Detroit, L’Auto Journal, Radio Europe 1, KCWI Des Moines, KCRA Sacramento, KPIX San Francisco, CNNi, FOX 19 Cincinnati, WGCL Atlanta, WSYX Columbus, WLW Radio Cincinnati, WBNS Columbus, WLWT Cincinnati, NBC 5 Nashville, FOX Sports Radio, France TV, Canal +

Racer Magazine photo shoot

Monday:

NBCSports.com

The Ride with JMV – 1070 The Fan Indy

RACER.com interview

SiriusXM NASCAR Radio “The Morning Drive”

Borg-Warner Photo Shoot

Jostens Photo Shoot

Champion’s Photo Shoot on Yard of Bricks

Morning after press conference

Scrum with French media following press conference

Honda INDYCAR Race Report

Forbes.com

Road and Track

Sirius XM “The Real Spin”

For The Win

Dan Dakich Show – 1070 The Fan

Query and Schultz

Speed City Radio

Detroit News

Victory Celebration Red Carpet

Tuesday (New York):

610 The Fan Charlotte – Mac Attack

Good Day New York

NASDAQ Opening Bell (picked up by Bloomberg, BNN, CNBC, FOX Business)

Empire State Building photo opp: New York Times, FOX Sports, NHL Celebrity Wrap, AP TV, Agence France-Presse (AFP), KCS Presse, SSNEWSIMAGES,  SIPA USA, UPI

Reuters

SI Now

Sports Illustrated social media

Sports Illustrated photo shoot

Road and Track

WNBC New York

6th Annual “Toast on Top” Party: ABC News One, AFP, Adweek, Blomberg, Consumer Report, Forbes, Fox Sports (.com and First Things First), Front Office Sports, Good Day New York, Hearst Auto, Fast Company/Inc, New York Times, New York Post/Page Six, Reuters, Road and Track, Sports Illustrated, UEG Worldwide, USA TODAY, CNBC, FOX Business, FOX News, Wall Street Journal, SiriusXM, CNN Business, CBS This Morning, ABC News, Women’s Wear Daily, Bloomberg TV (Partners in attendance: Gainbridge, SiriusXM, BHV, NBC, Crown Royal, Firestone)

Wednesday (over the phone – weather prevented him from getting to DFW):

RPM Radio (Austin)

TrackSmack Radio

SiriusXM Radio “From Press Box to Press Row”

WWLS Sports Animal (OK City)

Texas Motor Speedway “No Limits” podcast

French Morning

Thursday:

Detroit media luncheon

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500