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After White House visit, Pagenaud hopes to see Macron next

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Simon Pagenaud has been living in the United States long enough to know that in a time of revved-up partisanship, an invitation to the White House might come with some speed bumps.

Decline an invite, as some American athletes have, and you might risk being seen as a grandstander who’s dragging personal politics into the sports world. Accept and others might see you as tacitly endorsing a laundry list of policies and views. A version of this debate played out in Pagenaud’s Twitter mentions earlier this week.

But Pagenaud, a native of France, didn’t hesitate to accept President Donald Trump’s invitation to attend a White House ceremony with Team Penske on Monday to celebrate their Indianapolis 500 victory.

“To me, when the president of the biggest country in the world invites you to reward you for sports achievements, I think all politics aside, you say yes,” Pagenaud said. “Because it’s a recognition of your work, it’s a recognition of the hard work that was behind it. It’s very symbolic. It’s something that you can’t say no to, in my opinion. I think because it’s sports, you have to put aside any political views. It had nothing to do with politics.”

And soon, he may get to do the same thing with President Emmanuel Macron.

“The French federation of racing is working on having me go and meet with the president of France,” Pagenaud said. “We’ll see if it happens. I hope it does. Because it’s definitely a huge achievement. For the young kids who are coming up in racing in France. It’s a huge achievement for our sport, for racing in France.”

Pagenaud goes out of his way to note that it was an honor to be at the White House “as a Frenchman.” But he has lived in the U.S. since the mid-2000s, and it’s clear that his affinity for his adopted country is strong – so strong, in fact, that he will consider applying for dual citizenship after he marries his American fiancee, Hailey McDermott.

“It’s a difficult subject for me, because I still feel like my French roots are very strong,” he said. “But in the meantime, America has welcomed me with such open arms that I feel Americanized. And when you read articles or you hear people talk about me everywhere in France, they say I’m Americanized – they say I’m the `French American.’ I’ve adopted your culture so much. My future wife is American, she’s from San Diego. I talk English 80 percent of the time. And my way of thinking is more American than French now. So I am Americanized. I can’t deny it.”

The couple is not entirely disassociated from politics; during qualifying at Indianapolis in May, McDermott and Ashley Welch, the fiancee of Pagenaud’s Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, wore T-shirts that said, “Not YOUR Body, Not YOUR Choice,” a statement about abortion policy.

She posted a photo of the team from the White House on her Instagram account , writing, “Today we got to meet the POTUS (at)realdonaldtrump and regardless of political views, it was an honor to be recognized at the (at)whitehouse.”

For his part, Pagenaud said he enjoyed meeting Trump, whom the team presented with a souvenir racing helmet.

“He was very down to Earth,” Pagenaud said. “Very easy to talk to.”

Pagenaud appreciated his tours of the Capitol and the White House, where he was particularly impressed by the art, decor and some behind-the-scenes access.

“Rooms where you can’t take your cellphone, so I can’t describe that too much,” Pagenaud said. “That was just, honestly, incredible to experience that, and it’s something that I’ll always have engraved in my memory.”

Pagenaud has only been home for two nights since winning Indy – and that includes just a few hours on Monday night, before flying to Milwaukee for a media tour to promote next weekend’s race at Road America. He’s still plowing through responses to the 2,500-plus messages he received since his Indy win.

He doesn’t appear to be running on fumes. Asked to name his favorite moment since winning Indy, he quickly decides that it was pouring milk on himself in victory lane and then proceeds to rattle off four or five more things that he thought were really cool.

“I think as an ambassador of the Indy 500, I really want to push it further,” Pagenaud said. “I want to push it to other countries. I want to make sure the race is recognized as it is. It’s the biggest race in the world. It should be talked about everywhere. I want to make sure I can do that, and help as much as I can.”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?