Pagenaud going home with Indy 500 prize in tow

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Simon Pagenaud admits he might shed a tear when he goes home to France this weekend.

The 35-year-old Team Penske driver knows he will be emotional about sharing his greatest racing accomplishment -- winning May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge -- with not just his hometown of Montmorillon but also Paris, where the Borg-Warner Trophy with his new sculpted likeness will be unveiled.

“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “The back picture is going to be phenomenal with the Eiffel Tower. It’s going to be such a proud moment for France to be able to say we have the biggest trophy in the world there and a Frenchman has his face on it. I’m really excited to see that and the engraving. (Sculptor) Will Behrends did such a great job. He welcomed us to his home, and we really bonded well. I’m very excited to see that.

“Frederic Lissalde, the CEO of BorgWarner, he’s French, so it’s very special for him as well. I really want to thank everybody at BorgWarner for all the effort making it happen. It’s not that easy to bring the Borg-Warner Trophy there. It’s such a valuable trophy, the most valuable trophy in the world. It’s a big ask to bring it overseas.”

When Pagenaud won the 2016 NTT IndyCar Series championship, he received a hero’s welcome home in Montmorillon, where thousands flooded a town square. He envisions another memorable return accompanied by the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“It was emotional, for sure,” he said. “We get taken by life, quite frankly, and you don’t really reflect on what you’ve done much because you always have to go onto the next thing. But when you go home, that’s really where your roots are, that’s really where you grew up, where on the streets you rode your moped as a kid. There are plenty of stories. It’s your foundation.

“A lot of the people that you see when you go back in a moment like that helped you create your childhood. It’s special. All of those people have been part of your life at a time when you’re creating yourself.”

Pagenaud chuckles at the assertion he’s become a hero.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “I love superheroes, but I don’t believe I’m one yet. I’m working on it.

“I made myself in America, right? I’ve lived the American dream. Most of these people didn’t get to do that.”

Pagenaud thinks back to his childhood, when he was racing go-karts and most considered his passion just a passing hobby. Many thought he would end up just working at his father’s supermarket.

But Pagenaud’s drive to succeed has transformed him into one of the series’ elite talents. After winning the championship in 2016, he continually reiterated his racing goal was to conquer the famed Indianapolis 500. He finally did that in May, winning a late shootout with Alexander Rossi in Team Penske’s No. 22 Menards Chevrolet to realize his dream.

“A lot of these people at home didn’t take me seriously when I was a kid,” he said. “But my passion grew bigger and I ended up being the man I am today. So when I go back, it’s like, yeah, there’s a whole life out there that’s been beautiful and amazing to me, a lot of friendships throughout the years that I’ve started overseas. I’m bringing that back with me.

“That’s why these moments are special because it’s my way of showing what I’ve done and what this race is. It allows them to understand more about the sport and understand what we did as someone from there. It’s also their win, right? They know me. I’m very proud of that, for sure.”

Pagenaud will attend Sunday’s Formula One Hungarian Grand Prix. He will exchange racing helmets with F1 World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel and watch the race from the Renault garage.

Because Pagenaud has been so consumed by his current championship chase — he is third in the points with four races remaining — he hasn’t thought much about this special homecoming. He still plans to train while in France because he wants to be ready for the next race, the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway on Aug. 18. The race can be seen on NBCSN.

“I want to climb another mountain,” he said. “I still have something to finish here.”

But Pagenaud will savor this homecoming as much as possible.

“I might cry a little bit,” he said with a smile. “I’ll go back in December when I can fully appreciate it. I’m certainly so focused on the job right now, it’s taking away a little bit of that appreciation, but I’m pretty sure when I’m in Paris, Poitiers and Montmorillon with the people that I know, it’s going to be a very special moment.”

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