Simon Pagenaud wrestles with mixed emotions in defending Indy 500 win

Indy 500 Simon Pagenaud
Jenna Watson/IndyStar via USA TODAY NETWORK
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When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens Wednesday with its first practice for the 104th Indy 500, defending race winner Simon Pagenaud will be selective about his feelings.

The Team Penske driver will be embracing the chance to defend his title and become the first back-to-back winner in nearly 20 years. He will be reveling in being on racing’s biggest stage for the biggest race of the NTT IndyCar Series.

But he also is trying to block out that the atmosphere undoubtedly will be a stark contrast to his thrilling victory last year over Alexander Rossi — because the track’s mammoth grandstands will be devoid of a couple hundred thousand people cheering the closing laps for the first time in the race’s history.

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“Hopefully there is a battle that’s just as exciting for the fans, but it definitely is going to feel different, (and) the energy is going to be different,” Pagenaud said during a Zoom media availability Monday. “It’s going to feel flat. No reason to think differently. It won’t feel as energetic.

“It’s going to be very different, but it is the biggest race in the world and the fastest race in the world, and I’ve been very excited to get going and to please people with this competition. That’s really what I’m looking forward to right now.”

The stature of the Indy 500 is among the only certainties during a season filled with schedule upheaval and race cancellations.

The Mid-Ohio race weekend doubleheader, which was supposed to have been held Aug. 8-9 as the lead-in to Indianapolis, became the latest abrupt casualty. Its indefinite postponement underscores the most difficult challenge as IndyCar has returned during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“It’s the unexpected, quite frankly,” said Pagenaud, who was surprised by the Mid-Ohio announcement and needed a few days to switch from preparing for a road course to an oval. “We don’t know what tomorrow is about. A week ago. we were racing in Mid, Ohio and all of a sudden we’re not, and you prepare yourself (with) a regimen of training nutrition, hydration and preparation for an event, and then it has been canceled.

“It’s not easy to switch your mind to the next thing when you had a goal in mind, but Indianapolis (is) my No. 1 goal and he always has been since 2016. That’s my main focus every year. I know it’s happening this weekend and the next one. I’m very excited about it. So just want to get there and get going (and) strap in my car and get to feel good to feel what it’s like.”

One feeling that Pagenaud is sure about?

“Coming here being the defending champion just allows you to feel a lot less personal pressure,” he said. “Just allows me to be a lot more focused on doing the right thing and not worrying about the result, and I do believe when you don’t worry about the result, things come together better.”

The wait will be worth it for Pagenaud, who will have endured one of the longest waits as a defending winner when the race finally happens Aug. 23 (1 p.m. ET on NBC; 2:30 p.m. green flag). He enters the race second in the points standings to Scott Dixon with three podiums in six races (including the July 17 race at Iowa Speedway.

“It’s been a serious anticipation on my part just because I love that race,” he said. “I love the event and I want to go back. It’s the favorite feel I get throughout the entire year in the race car, and I was very worried we weren’t going to race this year. So I’m relieved that we are going to get to race, but it’s a pain that we won’t have any fans.

“I’m a very very spiritual person. As pragmatic as I can be with the race car. I am a very spiritual person for those who know me personally. I use the energy of the crowd to prepare me and give me give me wings. This year will be different, but the exciting part is to drive the race car at this track and when you know the history of the place, the previous winners and the stories for more than a century and you’re part of that. I just feel blessed I get to go back and I get to race it. It’s quite a great feeling.”