Indy 500 winner believes ‘sky is the limit’ with INDYCAR’s new owner

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As the reigning winner of the Indianapolis 500, Simon Pagenaud has first-hand knowledge at how winning the biggest race in the world has changed his life.

Now that his team owner, Roger Penske, has agreed to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions, Pagenaud predicts even greater things for the grandest event in auto racing.

“I don’t think there is anybody that can fulfill the role as well as Roger Penske can,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com in an exclusive interview. “I’m very excited about the future. What the Penske Corporation can bring to the sport, the sky is the limit from now on.

“It’s very exciting for the future of INDYCAR, for the Indianapolis 500 and myself as a driver being in this sport.”

Pagenaud also remembered the 74-year ownership history of the Hulman George Family, that began when Tony Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker on November 14, 1945.

“It’s been incredible to see what the Hulman-George Family have done for the sport,” Pagenaud said. “Personally, as a winner of the Indianapolis 500, you enter that exclusive club as a winner. It was a dream to go to that track as a kid and it was a dream to win it. It was a very unreachable dream and it was made known to me when I was a kid.

“That family has done so much for me and for the sport that I love, I’m super thankful.

“Roger Penske has a very similar story except he ended up buying it in the end. It’s incredible to see the empire he has produced. I’m very proud to drive for Team Penske; very proud to see what my boss has accomplished in his career.”

At 82 years of age, Penske continues to command a “full-speed ahead” approach to his massive business empire and his legendary racing team that has won a combined 545 races all over the world including a record 18 wins in the Indianapolis 500.

“Roger is the best at knowing what to do with his schedule,” Pagenaud said. “I can tell you one thing, it’s impressive how he manages things so perfectly while being so busy. That is a trait of character for a very successful businessman and he is one of the most successful in the world.

“It’s incredible to see the desire that he has. It’s incredible that I know him personally and I’m very proud to be one of his drivers.

“The Penske drivers, when you join Team Penske you represent more than just the team, you represent the brand. That brand just expanded.

“That future is going to be more exciting for all of us.”

Pagenaud has full confidence in the Penske Corporation, INDYCAR and its staff led by CEO Mark Miles and President Jay Frye and their staffs.

“Personally, I’m along for the ride,” Pagenaud said. “I’m excited for the ride we are about to take.”

There was another life-changing moment for Pagenaud on October 25. That is when he married his longtime girlfriend, Hailey McDermott, at a small, private outdoor ceremony in Napa, California.

McDermott and Pagenaud have been together for seven years. Six weeks ago, they made it official.

“I have been married for a while to that lovely lady,” Pagenaud quipped. “I’ve accomplished all my dreams.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”