CORNELIUS, North Carolina – When Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud won the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019, he joined the likes of such legends as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves and current teammate Will Power.
With this year’s Indy 500 rescheduled from May 24 to Aug. 23 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pagenaud is part of a group that includes Dario Resta, Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose.
These are drivers who had an extended reign as an Indianapolis 500 winner for reasons that were bigger than the race itself.
Resta won the 1916 Indianapolis 500. The race was halted for two years because of “The Great War,” later known as World War I. When the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway resumed in 1919, Howdy Wilcox ended Resta’s extended reign.
Davis started the 1941 race in an Offenhauser owned by Lou Moore but had to give way to a relief driver on Lap 72 after car owner Lou Meyer was displeased with his driving effort. That driver was Rose, who drove the car to victory. Both drivers were listed as Indianapolis 500 winners in 1941.
That was on May 30, 1941. On Dec. 7 came the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shuttered from 1942-1945. Tony Hulman purchased the decaying facility from former owner Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945.
The Indianapolis 500 returned on May 30, 1946 with George Robson winning the race.
It has been the centerpiece sporting event on Memorial Day or Memorial Day Weekend ever since, with the exceptions of 1973, 1986 and 1997 when rain moved it to later in the week. In 1986, it was held on Saturday of the next weekend when rain prohibited running it on Memorial Day Monday or Tuesday of that week.
Bobby Rahal was the winner in ’86.
Rose became a three-time champion with victories in 1947 and 1948 to supplement his “relief driver” victory in 1941.
When Pagenaud was told of the reasons his reign as Indy 500 winner would last longer than normal, he didn’t find it a reason to celebrate by any means.
After all, whether they are world wars or a worldwide pandemic, the Indy 500 has been delayed by grim events in human history.
“Well, those are not very fun events,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com last week from his home on Lake Norman in North Carolina. “But I’m glad we have been able to find a date for the biggest race in the world. I’m glad we are going to be able to run it safely. The health of people was the main focus here. I’m glad it was announced because it will take away a lot of stress from the teams and fans on expectations.
“It’s awesome to see the way IndyCar has rescheduled the whole year. We’ll go racing in June and in August. It’s exciting because it’s a good time to go racing. It’s an exciting day in such a tough time.”
Pagenaud is a popular Frenchman who came to the United States after a successful road racing career in Europe to find his next challenge in racing. Since joining IndyCar, he has won a series championship in 2016 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2019.
Pagenaud, his wife Hailey, and their prized “son” – a Jack Russell Terrier named Norman – played it safe on March 13 after the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was canceled (it since has been revived with the hopes of being a season finale in October).
“On Friday of St. Pete, I decided to drive home to contain myself to make sure I wasn’t going to get the virus or contaminate someone if I was the carrier,” Pagenaud said. “We went home and have been isolated since. The nice thing is I have a gym set up; I have my simulator here. I have everything I need to stay in touch with my family, and friends and my trainer. I’ve been working out just like any other week. It’s just a longer one. It’s like the race at Indianapolis last year, it’s a reset.
“I know where I need to be and how I need to be mentally and physically.
“At this point, I’m more ready than ever.”
His family, however, remains in France, and he has concern for his loved ones that are fighting the pandemic across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’m very concerned for my family,” Pagenaud said. “My sister lives very close to Italy in the south of France. That is a big concern as well as my nephew. I’ve been in touch with them. My dad owns a supermarket in my hometown in France, and he is on the frontline as well waking up every day at 4 a.m. and coming home at 8 p.m. to keep his troops in great form.
“It was a concern. It still is. My mom is in Paris, too. Hopefully, everybody is in good health and staying in good health. We pray for everybody on this Earth. Hopefully, we get out of it as soon as possible and go on to enjoy our business and our lives.”
As much of the world is on lockdown, including major parts of the United States, the dream of one day returning to normalcy is the bright spot that keeps people going. That is why Pagenaud continues his strenuous physical workouts at home with the dream of taking a drink from the traditional “Bottle of Milk” that goes to the Indy 500 winner.
That milk should taste just as good in August as it does at the end of May.
“It might be a little warmer, but the goal is to still try it,” Pagenaud said. “I’m excited to try to get a second crown. At this point, I want to go racing and experience another year like I just experienced. I’m ready to go racing, and I know the whole team is ready to go. It’s pretty awesome news that we are going to run the race in August.”
Once Pagenaud puts on his helmet and flips down the visor, it will be Race Day at the Indy 500, no matter if it is in May or in August.
“The approach will be the same, but different temperature might change the car and the way it is going to handle in the heat of August in Indianapolis,” Pagenaud said. “It’s going to be a different race for different reasons, but in May we have had some hot Indianapolis 500s and some colder ones. We will adapt. That is what we do in racing.
“Most importantly, we are going to have a great show.”
IndyCar officials hope to start the season on May 30 with the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader. That is predicated on if the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is under control by then. IndyCar, led by new owner Roger Penske, along with Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, IndyCar President Jay Frye and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, created a revised schedule for 2020.
“It’s impressive,” Pagenaud said. “It’s a tough situation to be in for IndyCar. There is nothing you can do. The most important thing is the health of people, of our fans and of the population. You are just being a passenger of the situation. When you have to make decisions, it’s really hard to know which way to go.”
If the season begins as planned, IndyCar will be racing nearly every weekend with few gaps in the schedule. If successful, 14 of the 17 races on the original calendar are on the revised schedule.
“It’s going to be intense,” Pagenaud said. “This is a very physical car to drive and a very physical race series. It’s so competitive. You are fighting 32 other cars that can win the race in Indianapolis and 25 or more cars in the championship this year. It’s about preparation. I didn’t stop training. I’m fully ready for this year.
“It’s great to get some rest now before a fast-paced season. No problem, I’m ready.”
The revised schedule also has an IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader set for July 4 as the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix was moved from May 9 to the same day as the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 on the IMS road course. The Brickyard 400 will run the following day with Cup cars on the oval.
NASCAR officials have been quiet on the idea of a doubleheader while waiting to unveil their officially revised schedule. If it happens, though, it would be one of the most intriguing weekends in recent motorsports history.
“It’s great to see the great racing series get together like this in America,” Pagenaud said. “NASCAR is a huge sport and so is IndyCar. Now we are going to be racing together on the same weekend in the biggest racing location in the world.
“There are so many objectives for this situation. It took the leaders of our series to get together, a lot of effort on both sides, and with NBC being our main channel, it’s a no-brainer. Super excited for the fans.”
As the current reigning champion of the Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud has experienced all of the traditions and celebrations that go with the historic achievement. Preserving practice and a full weekend of qualifications on Aug. 15-16 was vital.
“For the traditions and being a past winner, it’s important to keep the traditions alive,” Pagenaud said. “It’s great because we are keeping everything alive, the traditions, everything that goes into the Indy 500. It’s our biggest race in the championship and I’m so, so glad we are going to run it. I was concerned we weren’t going to run it this year. It’s fantastic news and gives me a lot of motivation because it is my No. 1 goal.
“We will come out of this. This is going to change the world.”