Pagenaud To Hit Bricks As Man Of The Moment

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 13 2016
Simon Pagenuad has arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the driver to beat. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

Simon Pagenuad has arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the driver to beat. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

He is the hottest Team Penske driver not named Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya or Will Power. Meet Simon Pagenaud, who is channeling his beliefs in meditation and Ayrton Senna and his unassuming self into what could become a career-defining Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

bugindycarPagenaud has fashioned a 48-point lead in the driver standings over four-time/reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon heading into Saturday’s third annual Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a prelude to the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

A pole, a pair of second-place finishes and consecutive victories on the Streets of Long Beach and at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., have stamped Pagenaud _ winless during his debut 2015 season with Roger Penske’s juggernaut _ as a bona fide championship favorite.

“It’s just good. I mean, I’m confident,” Pagenaud said during a recent aero test at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “Most importantly I feel like I’m driving really well. I’ve gained a lot of confidence throughout the four races. I know my team is fully behind me, I know everybody supports me. So I have a lot of confidence. I’m relaxed, which is a big strength. When I’m relaxed and confident I can do things I wouldn’t usually do. I’m so riding on that wave.

“Obviously, it’s a long month. It’s two different races, the Indy Grand Prix _ that’s one of my strong suits (he won the inaugural in 2014) so I think we’ll be competitive. The Indy 500 we were very good last year but the cars have changed so we’re going to have a lot of work to do during the two weeks to get ready. But I think we’ll be in good shape. I’m not really thinking about results; I’m just trying to work, study and be disciplined. I think it will pay off.”

Dixon, of arch-rival Target Chip Ganassi Racing, closed-out Thursday’s second practice around IMS’ 2.439-mile/14-turn road-course in a flurry to serve notice the track record may be in jeopardy this

Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud is hoping milk will replace wine as his drink of choice this month.

Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud is hoping milk will replace wine as his drink of choice this month.

weekend. Dixon topped the speed chart with a lap of 1 minute, 9.8281-seconds at 125.743 mph in his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. That lap eclipsed the top circuit set by defending pole and race-winner Power during the morning session _ 1:09.8943-seconds at 125.624 mph _ in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

Power holds the track record, established last year in the Firestone Fast Six segment of qualifying, at 1:09.4886-seconds at 126.357 mph.

Pagenaud was third on Thursday’s combined speed chart with a lap of 1:09.9894-seconds at 125.453 mph in his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet. Pagenaud’s lap edged Graham Rahal by a scant 0.0002-seconds, with the second-generation American star fourth at 1:09.9896-seconds (also 125.453 mph) in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda.

Power and Pagenaud are the only drivers to qualify in the top-five in both previous Angie’s List races. A third practice session is scheduled for 11-11:45 a.m. (ET) Friday prior to knockout qualifying beginning at 3 p.m. (ET) leading into the Firestone Fast Six and the Verizon P1 Award. Both sessions will be streamed live at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

The 82-lap race, fifth event on the 2016 schedule, will start at 3:50 p.m. (ET) Saturday. Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

With double-points for the 500 looming at the end of the month, Pagenaud is poised to put a considerable gap between himself and his peers in search of his first series championship. That said, the Frenchman insisted he will go about his business as usual.

“Indy is a track that suits us really well. We won the inaugural Grand Prix in 2014,” said Pagenaud,

Simon Pagenaud is having a breakout season.

Simon Pagenaud is having a breakout season.

then driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “I feel this is actually probably the track that suits my driving style the best.

“I love the road-course. It’s a beautiful layout. The surface is really smooth so we can really be aggressive with the setup. I just love the fact that we kick off the Month of May with a road-course. The fans can see the cars in that configuration. Then we switch over to the Indy mode after that. I think it’s great. It’s what IndyCar is all about _ diversity. We’re showing what we can do. Different kind of tracks, different configurations, the aerodynamics. I find that very exciting.

“Also great memories. I’ve lived in Indianapolis for nine years. Obviously, Indy is a bit of a one-off because the Indy 500 _ this is the 100th running, it’s the 50th anniversary of Team Penske. Like I said, it’s a bit of a one-off in the championship where second is nice, but it doesn’t really do anything for you.”

Pagenaud endured considerable criticism in 2015 as his winless season rolled to conclusion. The differences between last year and this?

“Not much, actually. It’s the exact same people,” said Pagenaud, a native of Poitiers, France, who will turn 32 on May 18. “We just started from scratch last year. I joined the team, it’s the first time Team Penske started a four-car team so we had to pull some mechanics from the other cars, get some new mechanics from other teams. Kyle Moyer came to me as strategist.

“But it takes a lot more than that to be competitive in IndyCar racing. You need to be so perfect on the race weekend to win the race these days because the competition is so high, we need to get everything right. So it takes time. It’s just like when you join a new company and it takes time to understand what your colleagues might mean. The dynamic started last year, it just didn’t show. So we’re going to keep going, stay humble…it’s a long season.”

The soft-spoken Pagenaud admittedly has found his comfort zone among his high-profile teammates. Castroneves, of Brazil, is a three-time Indy 500 champion and engaging self-promoter. Montoya, of Colombia, is the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion whose global resume includes victories in Formula One and NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Power, of Australia, won the IndyCar Series championship in 2014 and widely is acknowledged as the series’ road-racing ace.

“Listen, I’m just going to do my thing,” Pagenaud said. “I don’t mind being under the radar, as long

Simon Pagenaud celebrates his victory in the IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Simon Pagenaud celebrates his victory in the IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

as we win races. At this point I’m pretty happy to be where we’re at. I don’t feel like people are forgetting about me. I don’t feel that way at all.

“I’m not Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., that’s for sure. I don’t have the same name. I think I’m pretty new in the sport, too. I’m not American. It’s always a bit more difficult to build the brand. But we’re doing that. We’re trying to do our best to build the brand. It takes time. It takes championships. We need to win more races and be up there on a consistent basis.

“Certainly being with Team Penske really helps because it’s a big name, we’ve got big partners with us. You say I’m missing the boat. But not really. I don’t think so.”

Castroneves, meanwhile, acknowledged it will be quite different chasing Pagenaud around the famed Brickyard this month, including the 2.5-mile oval during “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on the 29th.

“I’ve got to give him some foie de gras, some wine, so he can slow down a little bit,” Castroneves joked. “Good for him. Last year was tough. He came from a different team. In all fairness, some of the unfortunate scenarios were not all his fault.  I believe this year, he’s been putting himself in a good position and take advantage. Good for him.

“Right now, there’s no question he’s the man to beat. He’s leading the championship with a large amount of points. But we do have two races with double points and I’m going to focus on those and make sure we close the gap.”

Power added that Pagenaud certainly put his untapped potential on display last season. “Some years,  you just have bad luck,” Power said. “He’s definitely the guy to beat.”

Pagenaud insisted his newfound status as championship contender will not change a still-developing chemistry with this group at Team Penske.

“Actually, I wish we could put a web cam inside the debriefing room to see how much fun we’re having. Maybe there would be a lot censored,” Pagenaud joked. “We’re having a great time all together. When we sign for Team Penske, we’re being told to all work together. I think there’s a great understanding of that. I get along very well with Montoya. Helio is such an easy guy. Will, I’ve known him since 2005. We’ve been racing together for a long time. I think we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s interesting to complete yourself as a driver by watching what the others do _ what they do better, how you can do something better than them, can you use their strengths. I think that’s what makes us so strong, and I think we all understand there’s an advantage to be friendly off-track to each other and try to help each other. We don’t hide anything. I think it makes for a great dynamic.

“I certainly am way more _ how do you say _ better in the system this year. I have a better relationship with everybody. Everybody knows me better. Things are going very smoothly. It’s the best it can be right now.”

Along those lines, Pagenaud pointed to his practice of meditation as a key element in his success and serenity. “I’ve had to channel my energy,” Pagenaud said. “When I was a kid, I was a little bit too emotional, too excited in the race car, but even before that. Something I’ve been working on for years, channeling my energy, trying to find that path to ultimate concentration.

“Yeah, it’s discipline, in my opinion, that gets me there and can get any driver there. But it takes many, many years to control it.”

That’s a lesson Pagenaud borrowed from the meteoric life of Senna, the late three-time Formula One World Driving Champion from Brazil. Pagenaud has driven with Senna’s national colors in the past. And Pagenaud is up-front about his hero worship for the man who was killed in a crash while leading the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy on May 1, 1994 driving for Sir Frank Williams. Senna was 34.

“He’s been my idol, my role model, my life model really since I was a little kid,” Pagenaud said. “I think he is the reason I got interested in racing. Even as a living person, he still had that mythical attitude in him. I think he had this special aura around him.

“I felt attracted to what he was talking about. His ability to go deeper in his thoughts and concentration level was very intriguing. I started experiencing it pretty early at times, not on purpose, but in my go-kart. Then I started to get very interested in the technical side of racing on my go-kart, as well. A bit like he used to, I used to work on my go-kart as well, just to try to optimize it.

“As I started racing, I figured that the physical aspect was important. But the mental side of things was probably the most important because your brain commands your body so you basically need to train your brain to do what you want it to do.

“He’s definitely my inspiration. Sometimes when I need more motivation, I go and watch movies of him. I read the book, the Senna book. That’s how I find motivation sometimes.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 13 2016
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