Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi return to Indy to celebrate epic battle

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They re-created one of the most thrilling finishes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history by driving inches apart across the famous Yard of Bricks.

They also recounted the epic battle while sitting 6 feet apart (properly social distanced) and having to don masks during a shoot at the track’s iconic Pagoda.

For Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi, two Indianapolis 500 winners whose connection is both intensely fierce and extraordinarily friendly, it was one of many moments of juxtaposition while filming “Back Home Again,” the special hosted by Mike Tirico that will showcase their stirring battle last year.

‘BACK HOME AGAIN’: Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, NBC

“It was awesome to be back there in a race car,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “It didn’t feel like we were in this weird void of nothingness anymore. It felt like things were back to normal at least for a couple of laps.”

Said Pagenaud: “It’s a bizarre time, but we managed to get some amazing footage.”

The program, which also will honor the race’s military traditions as well as health-care workers battling the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), will air Sunday on NBC at 2 p.m. ET during the original time slot of the 104th running of the Indy 500 (which has been postponed to Aug. 23 because of the pandemic).

Reliving the 2019 Indy 500 through exclusive commentary on the race replay and an interview with Tirico, the winner and runner-up from the 2019 race alternated between images that were both comfortably familiar and strikingly odd.

NBC

“From a visual standpoint, it’s very impactful to see that (the track) was just empty,” Rossi, who won the race in his 2016 debut, said. “The fact that it was the middle of May, and there were Indy cars on the track, and there were maybe 20 people there, was really surreal and a very unique experience.

“It’s a sad story as to how we got to this point, but from a drama perspective, the whole point of this special is capturing how 2020 is going to be very different than years in the past. It’s tied to the legacy of this race and the importance of the fans and the community that make it what it is.

“As a racetrack and an event by itself, it’s awesome, larger than life. But you really miss a really key element when there’s not people there. I think that was all too clear when we were there and just a reminder of how important the fans are to our sport. And to the Indy 500 in particular.”

Pagenaud, the Frenchman who became a popular first-time winner from the pole position of last year’s Indy 500, also would have preferred a full grandstand “but we’re doing the best we can to represent our sport and give something to the fans.” During the COVID-19 era, that required necessary adjustments for sanitary precautions.

“We were wearing masks, and everybody was,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com with a laugh. “Obviously, it’s not easy to understand the commands, especially for me, when people are wearing masks. So it is an adjustment, but we’re all getting used to the situation. The thing I’m really proud about is how IndyCar is reacting to it, being so proactive with NBC Sports. As partners, we’re able to showcase our sport, and that’s amazing to me in these times. I’m very proud to be part of it.

“Mike Tirico obviously is a really good host. And with Rossi, we have such respect with each other that we’re able to talk about things we never had the opportunity to before, so that was a really good time.”

It also was a fun return trip because the 2016 IndyCar champion had gone nearly a year since setting foot at IMS (which since has been purchased by his team owner, Roger Penske). The highlight was getting behind the wheel of his bright yellow No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet to turn laps with Rossi.

“The filming on the track was awesome,” Pagenaud said. “Alex and I were inches apart trying to give the best footage we could. The camera was inches away from the nose of my car sometimes.”

Rossi joked that his No. 28 Dallara-Honda wasn’t quite close enough.

“It was annoying because in a lot of the camera shots, my car was behind the 22,” he laughed. “I didn’t love that as much as Simon probably did. But yeah man, it was cool to not only be in a car, but then to hear the other noise of the car and to have a small little bit of slipstream going on. I think some of the shots that we got required a little bit of some dancing and precision, so I’ll be interested to see how they turn out.

“From the inside, it looked pretty awesome.”


Despite engaging in such a rousing duel on Indy’s largest stage (trading the lead five times in the last 14 laps), it would seem odd to describe Pagenaud and Rossi as a rivalry. Their friendship features healthy respect that often crosses into admiration.

During a replay of the Indy 500 on NBCSN’s “Racing Week in America” last month, they live-tweeted the race and traded congratulatory musings that revealed a deeper level to a relationship that sprouted when they were teamed on Penske’s Acura sports car program for the Rolex 24 the past two years.

Both agree that the 2019 Indy 500 finish strengthened that bond. Rossi is an introverted sort who doesn’t socialize much but makes an exception for Pagenaud.

“I don’t go out of my way to spend extra amounts of time with people at the racetrack, except for my very close friends and teammates at Andretti,” Rossi said. “But Simon always was kind of an outlier from that standpoint. I always was happy to talk to him and just share in experiences and opinions, whether good or bad, with what was going on from a current events standpoint.

“I think he’s a great guy. There’s probably more to that. I really enjoy racing with him on the track but also the opportunities here and there to have conversations with him away from the track.”

Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud chatted before a championship contenders news conference Sept. 19, 2019 in Monterey, California. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Pagenaud, who is more outgoing, appreciates Rossi’s simplicity when it comes to a love of racing.

“I think he’s very reserved, but he’s got a very strong fire inside that’s boiling and ready to go at anytime when he sits in a race car,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very interesting to see. I think he’s most comfortable in his race car. And he’s a true racer, whether whether Baja off-road, or sports car racing, V8 Supercars or IndyCar.

“He’s able to compete in all these different categories, which is fun to watch. He’s an old-school kind of guy caring more about driving than anything else.”

Though they have a tenacity to how they fight for positions (Pagenaud describes them as a couple of Jack Russell terriers), there is a dichotomy to their driving approach.

Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi shared a pace truck ride before the 2018 IndyCar Grand Prix (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“It’s almost they are very similar in style but different,” three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is teamed with both as an IMSA driver for Acura Team Penske, told NBCSports.com. “Simon is very detailed in his comments. Rossi also has great comments, but it’s more, ‘Just give me the car and I’ll drive.’ Very straightforward. But on the racetrack, they look very similar and close to each other, and that’s why they finished first and second last year.”

Castroneves was singled out by Rossi as one of the only drivers who is similar to his unorthodox style for IndyCar.

“There’s not many people who drive a car like I do,” chuckles Rossi, who prefers a looser rear end that often can mean dazzling displays of catching his car while oversteering through the corners.

Pagenaud, on the other hand, likes “a very positive” front end.

Having won multiple times in the NTT Series last season, both make it work.

“From a sheer internal competitive standpoint, I think Simon and I are probably close to the top from that standpoint,” Rossi said. “Where Simon is so impressive is his ability to articulate really small details. We can often have on the same feedback on a lot of things that go on throughout a race or qualifying lap, but he really differentiates himself with this minute level of detail. So that’s impressive to watch, and I think I’ve learned some things from him from that standpoint.”

Tim Holle/IndyCar

Pagenaud said he’s picked up things from Rossi’s often mesmerizing performances, such as last year’s comeback from a slow pit stop for fueling problems at the Brickyard.

“He’s relentless; I love the way he drives,” Pagenaud said. “His car control is something I admire. I always inspire myself from my competition. Certainly I think Alex has qualities that I don’t have, so I try to emulate what I don’t have and try to understand how I can get better by embracing what they’re doing. I think Rossi and I are very different styles, but we have the same driving side.

“He seems a lot more aggressive than I am. I’m more like the stealthy one that’s just going to be under cover even though my car is really bright. All of a sudden I pop up front, and people don’t know where I come from. Rossi is one of those guys that you know is going to do something spectacular, so you want to watch it. I’m not the same, but my consistency has brought me championships and a lot of very good wins.”


With 14 wins and a series title over 138 starts and eight full seasons in IndyCar, Pagenaud, who turned 36 on Monday, has been around twice as long as the 28-year-old Rossi (seven wins in 67 over four seasons).

But in taping “Back Home Again,” Pagenaud said he had witnessed growth in Rossi as “a very good ambassador of the sport. I feel like he sometimes hides that because he can seem so shy. But actually I learned a lot from him when we did that filming because the way he expressed his first win at Indy was spectacular.”

Like their driving approaches, there were both parallels and striking contrasts to their Indy 500 wins, which came four years apart with different circumstances and meanings.

Pagenaud had dreamed since childhood about becoming the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 in nearly 100 years, and he celebrated with a victory tour of his home country.

Alexander Rossi celebrates after winning the 100th running of the Indy 500 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Rossi was thrust into the spotlight much more abruptly as a rookie who won with a brilliant and perfectly executed fuel strategy in the 100th running of the race in 2016.

At the time, the Andretti Autosport driver only recently had left behind a longtime goal of becoming a star in Formula One, and with little oval experience, his IndyCar future didn’t seem certain.

He since has become a series fixture, re-signing a long-term deal last year with Andretti and Honda after a few months of being courted as the most coveted free agent (including being mentioned as a Penske candidate in place of Pagenaud, who re-signed with Penske after his Indy win).

The love affair with Indy bloomed in his unexpected victory.

Alexander Rossi does interviews after the 2019 Indy 500 Carb Day (Stephen King/IndyCar).

“Like Simon, I was blown away that I was in this position as an Indy 500 winner, but it wasn’t for the same reasons,” Rossi said. “His reasons were because of all the time it took and the dream, the desire, the effort and the failed attempts, etc. But for me, the fact I couldn’t believe it was because I didn’t ever imagine that a) I’d be participating in the Indy 500, but b) it didn’t even occur to me going into it that (winning) was even a remote possibility.”

The laid-back Californian took some criticism for a subdued victory celebration.

“When I got to the Victory Circle, I had no idea how to react,” Rossi said. “Because there wasn’t that thought process that went into it of, ‘Oh, this time that I win, I’m going to do this and feel that, and it’s going to be this culmination of all these years of finally coming through.’ It was like, “What the hell? What just happened? How did that happen? Why did that happen?” sort of reaction.

“So I think that was misinterpreted by a lot of people as a non-appreciation for it. I guess you could say that, but it wasn’t a non-appreciation for it because I wasn’t appreciative of the event or what the event meant. It was because I do not feel deserving to be in that position.”

Scott Dixon congratulates Simon Pagenaud after his Indy 500 win last year (Joe Skibinsk/IndyCar).

Pagenaud’s life-changing victory, which cemented his future at Penske, drew a long receiving line of former Indy winners that included Rossi, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Tony Kanaan.

“That was a surprise to see how many of my peers came to congratulate me,” he said. “I’m certainly one of the fiercest competitors out there, and it’s not like we’re old best friends, but there’s such respect. I really felt full inside when I realized the respect that I had from so many other competitors. So that was amazing.

“I think that’s the key in IndyCar racing. You have to look at the others to improve, and I think that’s why there’s such respect. Obviously at the speedway, it’s the fastest race in the world, so there is a need for respect that all the drivers have.”

Just being included in “Back Home Again” made Rossi feel respected.

“Obviously the 500 really ultimately rewards the winner,” he said. “So to be able to be a part of the special during these crazy times hopefully provides something fans can really be excited about with a memorable look back on last year that was really cool.”

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”