Ask Team Penske IndyCar Series driver Simon Pagenaud, which is more important – winning the Indianapolis 500 or the NTT IndyCar Series championship, he’ll deliver a definitive answer.
The Indianapolis 500 is something he has dreamed about since he was a young boy growing up in France. In fact, Pagenaud still has dreams about it.
“It still feels like a dream,” Pagenaud admitted. “It’s scary because I wake up in the morning wondering if it is still on. I even dreamt about Indy last night and I’m not saying that for fun. It’s amazing to think as a kid when I dreamt about it what it really does to your brain. I dreamt about it and now it’s part of my life and part of my life forever.
“Now, I’m going to go out there and kick their ass again.”
Pagenaud won the 2016 NTT IndyCar Series championship in his second year at Team Penske. He pushed his teammate, Josef Newgarden, into the final race of the season in 2017 with Newgarden taking the title.
Then came a disappointing 2018 campaign that left some wondering if Pagenaud would keep his ride at the conclusion of 2019. It just so happened Alexander Rossi’s contract was ending that year, and it appeared Team Penske was about to make a pitch for the talented driver.
Pagenaud delivered with a comeback for the ages. He swept all three big prizes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He won the IndyCar Grand Prix for the third time in his career. The next weekend, he won the Indianapolis 500 pole for the first time.
The big crown, of course, was his impressive victory in the 103rd Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud’s No. 22 Menard’s Chevrolet in the lead for 116 laps in the 200-lap contest.
Fittingly, the race was decided between himself and Rossi, the seeming heir apparent to his ride. Pagenaud took Rossi’s best shots but returned with a few of his own. The two drivers traded leads in a daring battle with the white flag about to wave.
Pagenaud took the lead, and Rossi was set to make his charge on the last lap. The driver from France zig-zagged down the backstretch to prevent Rossi from hooking onto a draft and making a potential race-winning pass.
When the checkered flag waved, Pagenaud finished 0.209 seconds in front of Rossi.
“When you are fighting like that to the end, it makes for a special memory in your head for the rest of your life,” Pagenaud reflected. “I also remember racing in Le Mans finishing second and being just as satisfied as well with such a great battle with Audi. I would have rather been on the winner’s side, but I do feel that you can get satisfaction from such great battles.
“From a winner’s standpoint, you want it to be when you really fought for it because it’s more rewarding and it gives you satisfaction. I wouldn’t mind winning the next four alone with nobody behind, but winning it is a great moment when you have to fight for it.”
Pagenaud owned the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also saved his career at Team Penske.
In fact, when NBC Sports senior motorsports writer Nate Ryan asked team owner Roger Penske in the winner’s media conference after the race if he could say with certainty Pagenaud would be back, Penske said, “Absolutely.”
The Indy 500 win began the most incredible year in Pagenaud’s life. He traveled with the Borg-Warner Trophy to his home nation of France and to his hometown of Montmorillon.
Wherever Pagenaud went, he was hailed as a hero.
“We have a game in France called Jeopardy, just like the show in the United States,” Pagenaud recalled. “I’m now one of the questions in France.
“I thought that was awesome because it shows the impact of the Indianapolis 500 on the world. Not just the US, but it carries over in other countries.
“It was 99 years ago that another Frenchman won. It had a huge impact. I received a ton of awards and recognition from my home country. I had a really cool time going to the Automobile Club in France. It’s the oldest automobile club in the world. They created racing in 1895, they were so excited. They knew all about the racing and all about the history of the Indy 500 and were so proud of a Frenchman winning. It’s an old club with a lot of old timers. I’m so proud to be part of it. It’s where the FIA resides. I got a gold license from the French Federation of Racing. It’s No. 61. There are only 60 drivers that have won ahead of me.
“I have a letter from the French president as well. And I was knighted. I’m now a Knight, so that’s pretty cool.
“It’s an incredible race that means more than just racing. I’ve gained recognition from my country and in the US. It’s pretty cool to see.”
There was one more thing to celebrate for Pagenaud in 2019. It’s when he finally married his longtime girlfriend Hailey McDermott in an outdoor ceremony in Napa, California, on Oct. 25.
That leads to the next question. Which ring is more important – the Indy 500 winner’s ring on the right hand or the wedding ring on the left?
Again, a definitive answer.
“The one on the left is always more important,” Pagenaud said. “You are joining lives, right. Hailey and I have been together for seven years, going on eight. It’s been a great journey together. She’s seen me grow during my IndyCar career. She’s been by my side. She has been a great support.
“It’s very much about that, being with someone that can provide you the balance you need to be better. It’s about being the best driver you can be, but also about being the best man you can be. I’m finding great balance. She is doing that for me and for Norman.
“I’m having fun, I’m having fun in life, I’m having fun in my professional career. I couldn’t be any more grateful. It sounds like a dream, but I’m living my dream. I’m super happy.”
Pagenaud was one of two big winners for Team Penske’s IndyCar team in 2019. He won the Indy 500 and teammate Newgarden won his second IndyCar championship.
“The 500 had a bigger impact I would say than the championship worldwide,” Pagenaud said. “As you know as a French driver, it really had a huge impact in France. So being the first driver in 99 years to win it was very special for my home country.
“I’ve been gone, in the U.S. for 14 years, it just reminded France that they had a driver over there in the U.S. who was participating in the biggest race in the world. That was really cool.
“Unfortunately when you have Detroit a week after, it’s hard to celebrate much. But the championship I really enjoyed also because winning a championship, it’s about being complete. The NTT IndyCar Series right now is so exciting because you have to be good on street course, the road course and on the oval. When you win a championship, you are the most complete driver.
“Obviously winning Indy is the lottery on one day, but winning a championship is in a different way just as rewarding.”
Winning last year’s Indianapolis 500 had a profound impact on Pagenaud’s life, just as much as it changed his career. It has shaped him into the man he’s always wanted to be.
“It’s been a real change to my life,” Pagenaud said. “A lot of people have been saying I seem more relieved, and yes, I’m very relieved. That’s from a personal standpoint. It has nothing to do with the driving or the race team or whatever. It’s more about the goal that you set when you are a kid. What you want to do? Where you want to be?
“Accomplishing those goals is very special to any human being. I feel like I have accomplished that. For those reasons, a lot of that pressure I put on myself is gone.
“It’s very nice because I actually feel more focused, more determined, more driven but also more relaxed. It’s a very interesting combination that is allowing me to be a better person.
“I think I’m going to be a better driver as well.”
It will be incredibly hard for Pagenaud to duplicate a year like 2019. After all, he won the Indy 500 and got married. He was hailed by the president of France and became a Knight.
With the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series beginning in next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Pagenaud believes there is always room for improvement.
“You can always get better,” he said. “It’s never over. I don’t want to reveal my secrets. Up here (pointing to his brain) you can always improve. I’ve opened doors I never knew were doors before. I’m still doing that. I’ve managed to find more within myself this winter on the focus side of things. I always have less anxiety after winning Indy. I think I can fly higher. Those are good things.
“There are plenty of things I can work on, like race pace, qualifying pace, managing our tires better. We have the aeroscreen now so that might change the situation with tire wear. There is more weight on the car. That is going to change also, the driving style. There are little things I have to adjust to.
“My goal is to set myself up for the season. It’s about understanding what you will need for the season, that counts. That is what I’m working on.”
For Pagenaud, his dreams of winning the Indy 500 led him to the United States. He also met the love of his life and fell in love with a form of racing that suits his talents.
“I love IndyCar racing,” Pagenaud said. “I love the Indianapolis 500 more and more. It’s amazing.
“Would I have liked to have won a Formula One championship in my life? Of course, I would. But my path was different. I came to the U.S. because the door opened, and I was welcomed here. They recognized my talent.
“I’m also 35 years old, and I have more to accomplish here. I still have one dream, and that is to go back and win Le Mans. I’ve come so close. If I have a good opportunity, I still want to win at Le Mans. Maybe Penske will go? Who knows, that might be my chance. And I want to do it again at Indy. The fire is still strong.
“I would have liked to have driven a Formula One car, but my career is set with IndyCar.”