Pagenaud reinserts himself into NTT IndyCar Championship race with Toronto victory

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TORONTO – Simon Pagenaud is back in the conversation for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship after the driver from France scored an impressive victory in the Honda Indy Toronto on Bastille Day.

By winning the race from the pole and leading 80 laps in the 85-lap contest, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner has put aside his celebration from winning the Memorial Day Weekend Classic and is ready to focus on another IndyCar title.

Since winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud had some major commitments that came with winning the world’s biggest race, including a trip to France. Once Pagenaud returned to the track at Toronto, he concluded the time for celebration was over; it was time to focus on the championship.

“That’s a good point,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “I think that was definitely a closure to go to France and realize the impact of the biggest race in the world. I had no idea the impact it was going to have in France. It was quite incredible.

“We’re actually going back in August for a media tour with INDYCAR to celebrate with the media there and fans in my hometown as well, which I’m really excited about. (The) Borg-Warner (Trophy) is going to be there. Those are good moments, too.

“I’m definitely switched to championship mode now even though I’m a happy person.”

This weekend on the streets of Toronto, Pagenaud was the fastest in every practice session, won the pole on Saturday and easily won the 85-lap race on Sunday when he was in front for 80 laps.

He defeated Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing in a race that finished under yellow after Pagenaud’s teammate, Will Power, stuffed his No. 12 Chevrolet into the Turn 8 tire barrier.

“What a great weekend really,” Pagenaud said afterwards. “We were really hooked up the whole weekend with a fantastic race car.

“Then it’s Bastille Day in France. Being able to win for France, after winning Indianapolis, it’s been a special year. I’m very proud to fly the French flag here in a cousin country, which is Canada. I’m really excited and proud.

“I guess the French guy is leading the Tour de France today on the bike. I felt like I had to do the same. Super proud.”

Pagenaud’s near-perfect weekend also shows his resurgence in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series points championship. It was his third win of the season, but his first since his spectacular “Month of May” in Indianapolis.

Pagenaud moved up to third in the standings and is now 39 points behind championship leader and teammate Josef Newgarden.

“What a great day for the team, great stops, great strategy and you had to hold off one of the best guys in the business behind you in Scott Dixon,” team owner Roger Penske said in Victory Lane of Pagenaud’s performance.

Dixon’s second place finish has him fourth in points, but he is 86 points behind Newgarden with six races left.

Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport finished third in a Honda and is now just four points behind Newgarden heading into Saturday night’s race at Iowa Speedway. He finished one position ahead of Newgarden, who clings to the championship lead that he has held for 10 of the 11 rounds in the championship.

While Rossi is closing in on Newgarden, Pagenaud is back to within striking distance of the lead. With six races remaining in the season, he promises to fight his way all the way to the final race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway in Laguna Seca, California on September 22.

“If you look at my Indy car career, I’ve been fighting for championships almost every year,” Pagenaud said. “Never count me out. That’s all I can say.

“Maybe here in the end, I’m showing it today, that’s my determination that’s talking, it’s not pretentious, it’s just that I have a great team behind me. We won the biggest race in the world. We just won an awesome race (in Toronto). To be at a driver track where you need to have a really good car, chassis and engine, we showed that today.

“We’ve got all the equipment, all the tools to do so well. Now it’s just a matter of knowing when to push it. It’s a long championship. You’ve got to build it. I’m here and I think Newgarden, Rossi and Dixon know it, like I know they’re here, too.

“It’s going to be a great fight in the end.”

IndyCar’s Scott Dixon staying fit during lengthy time off

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During a regular racing schedule, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing would spend much of his time between races at PitFit in Indianapolis.

The highly advanced workout facility on the northwest side of Indianapolis is run by noted sports trainer Jim Leo. His clientele includes IndyCar Series drivers and other athletes in the area.

In addition to the array of workout machines, Leo’s facility also has advanced equipment to test a driver’s reaction time. These range from a board with lights that rapidly flash, and a driver have to hit the board to turn them off. There are other tests drivers do to keep their skills sharp and reaction time focused.

Times have changed, though.

Indiana is under a statewide lockdown with the exception of essential services only. Instead of going to PitFit, Dixon is working out at his home on the north side of Indianapolis.

His reaction time is being tested by his wife, Emma, throw a tennis ball at him, changing the direction with each toss.

“I’ve gone back to old school, like tennis balls and Emma can drop them or throw them,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “As long as you keep up with basic cardio and lift weights and work on the neck muscles, that’s the harder part to get ready for. “As we get through this transition, we have 8-10 weeks before these things get lifted.

“I had already stopped going into Pit Fit last week. We had not been doing that for a while. Haven’t left the house for 13 days, now. We went to the grocery store once. The rest of the stuff has been delivered.

“We’re locked down, man, trying to do our best for everyone else.”

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Dixon’s home has an impressive array of workout equipment. That allows the 39-year-old racing legend to stay fit during this extended time off that won’t end until the last week of May at the earliest.

“I have most of the stuff I need at home,” Dixon explained. “Some of the reaction stuff, the D-2s and Synaptic machines plus some of the upper-body machines are pretty unique machines. Those are the machines that Jim Leo has at PitFit.

“As far as cycling, running, general weights, skiers and rollers, I have that at home.”

It seems like a lifetime ago when the world was normal. That was before the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak has literally sent society underground and locked in while a solution to this fatal virus is found.

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Before this unexpected shutdown, Dixon would go into PitFit to work on specialized equipment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He would do the rest of his physical workout at home.

“I started skipping that when we got home before the lockdown,” Dixon said. “Before the lockdown, Jim could have stayed open because he never has more than 10 people at once.

“Typically, he would have the drivers spaced out where Tony Kanaan and I would go in at 8 in the morning and Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe would go in at 9:30 and then Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot and Charlie Kimball would go in around 11. There were only about five of us going in at once.”

Two weeks ago, Leo dropped off some equipment at Dixon’s house along with more instructions to focus on his workouts during the layoff.

Sacrifices are being made all throughout the world, including racing.

“You can’t be selfish,” Dixon said. “It sucks for the drivers, but it sucks a lot worse for a lot of other people. Luckily, the school the girls go to has e-learning. It’s school as usual on the computer from 8:30 to 3 and that has been seamless on that front.

“On a personal note, it’s nice to be home with the baby and bonding as well and that is great. But all of us wish everything was back to normal as soon as possible.”

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Dixon is the father of three, including young daughters Poppy (10), Tilly (8) and infant son, Kit.

This is a time to keep his family safe.

“You hear mixed messages about who is more at risk,” Dixon said. “Obviously, older people with underlying conditions. We’re a fairly healthy family, but still it sounds like something can trigger a pretty bad situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry so we are limiting our contact as fast as possible. The quicker everybody locks down, the quicker we will get through the situation. If we stay home, we will see a decline and hopefully get back to normal pretty quickly.

“It’s a new thing for everybody.”

For now, Dixon works out at home, while the girls continue their classes on the computer. Emma spends time with her infant son, Kit, while taking care of the family.

These days of working out at home will be important because once racing is scheduled to return, tentatively set for May 30 at Detroit, it will be flat-out, racing nearly every weekend.

There won’t be time-off in-between races.

“No, but everybody is having plenty of rest right now,” Dixon quipped. “It’s not what anybody wants. We all keep hoping everybody remains safe and healthy. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people and we’ve been very lucky that we don’t know anybody that has had an issue so far. Hopefully, that remains the same.

“Everybody is ready to go. We were ready to go at St. Pete. This will be welcomed greatly.

“Nothing is normal these days. I think what IndyCar and IMS did was probably the best of the situations. You never want to move the dates of the 500, but you always want the people to be relaxed enough they are going to come to the race, too.

“The way they have done the schedule is pretty cool. It gives them enough wiggle room now with Detroit being the kickoff. What is also fun is the July 4 doubleheader weekend at Indianapolis and St. Pete finishing the season.”

Once life returns to normal, depending on what the new normal will look like, race drivers and athletes will once again be in an area they know.

The difficult part of this, however, is nobody knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

“The hard part right now is there are so many unknowns,” Dixon said. “That is what people hate. They could wrap their hands around two weeks, but it could be another six weeks. People will go crazy.

“That is what we are going through right now. The unknown. Nobody knows what the next step is.”

That is why Dixon has a message for all race fans to take these orders seriously.

“Stay safe. Stay away from people. Lock down. Get this period done with,” Dixon said. “Once we do that, hopefully we can crack on like normal and people can find fixes and therapies. As soon as everybody bunkers down, we will get through this sooner instead of later.

“Let’s get back to normal as quick as possible and get back to racing when we can.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500