Simon Pagenaud wrestles with mixed emotions in defending Indy 500 win

Indy 500 Simon Pagenaud
Jenna Watson/IndyStar via USA TODAY NETWORK

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.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”