Pagenaud relishes recognition, climb to Indy 500 triumph

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INDIANAPOLIS – Ever since Simon Pagenaud crossed the finish line Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his phone has been buzzing with text messages.

They aren’t being sent only by friends and family members. People who have lived Pagenaud’s experience have been sending them, too. Rick Mears sent one. So did Dario Franchitti, Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan and teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves.

The digital congratulations have been so frequent since Pagenaud won the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, he set aside the phone to focus on his postrace duties – photos news conferences, interviews, talk shows and such.

“I don’t have my phone anymore,” Pagenaud said with a laugh during one such news conference Monday morning at IMS following the traditional winning driver photo shoot on the speedway’s yard of bricks finish line.

“We woke up with about 700 texts. I haven’t checked my emails yet because it was just blown up. … What an incredible day. It’s difficult to fathom, still.”

The most significant message came from someone who played a significant role in Pagenaud’s life. Gil de Ferran, who won the Indy 500 in 2003, helped Pagenaud reset his racing career in 2007. On May 19, minutes after de Ferran, now the sporting director at McLaren Racing, failed to make it into the Indy 500 field with Fernando Alonso, his disappointment was eased somewhat when Pagenaud won the pole.

“I had a lot of support from him throughout the years,” Pagenaud said. “He’s been a very important part of my improvement, my development as a driver. Without him, I don’t think I would’ve ever unlocked so much potential. He definitely has a very special place in my heart. I sent him a message. I said, ‘Thank you for everything, because all of your advice worked.’”

In 2007, the Frenchman’s professional life reached a crossroad. His Champ Car ride had disappeared, and he wasn’t sure where to go. That’s when de Ferran offered him a shot with his sports car team in the American Le Mans Series. In 2009, he won five of the series’ 10 races, eventually earning a full-time ride in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2012 with Sam Schmidt’s team.

For a time in 2007, Pagenaud wondered if his racing days were finished.

“It was very difficult for me to have a connection,” he said. “People didn’t know my worth. I decided to try the sports car route, and there seemed to be more opportunities there for me at the time.”

In 2015, Roger Penske hired Pagenaud – now re-established as one of the top racers in the series – to join his powerhouse team. In 2016, Pagenaud won the championship.

“It's funny how things just take their place,” Pagenaud said. “After a few races (with Schmidt), I was already in touch with Roger. That was my dream. It's always been my dream to go to Team Penske.”

On Sunday, he accomplished his ultimate goal, leading 116 of the 200 laps and winning the Indy 500 by 0.2086 of a second. That after a nearly perfect couple of weeks that began with a victory in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, continuing with the pole for the Indy 500 and concluding with Sunday’s triumph after a breathtaking duel with Alexander Rossi.

“The stars aligned for me the whole month,” Pagenaud said. “I think there are days, like yesterday, I couldn't do anything wrong. I give that a little bit to Lady Luck. We had everything go right for us the whole race. Yes, (luck) was on our side.”

Now, as Team Penske prepares to move on from its record-extending 18th Indy 500 victory, Pagenaud has little time for luck. After Monday night’s Indy 500 Victory Celebration, Pagenaud will travel to New York City for another round of appearances and interviews and then to Dallas-Fort Worth on Wednesday. It’s a demanding schedule, especially considering he now has a one-point lead in the NTT IndyCar Series, which resumes the 2019 season this weekend with the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, a Saturday-Sunday doubleheader on the streets of Belle Isle Park.

Still, he’s attacking the publicity tour with the same drive that led with to victory at Indy.

“I’m very proud to be an Indy 500 champion,” Pagenaud said. “I’m going to do my best, like I do in the race car. I’m going to give it 100 percent.”

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