Now that he’s proven himself worthy as a Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Simon Pagenaud is committed to checking off another all-important box on his racing resume.
The Frenchman is focused on figuring out the Indianapolis 500.
The Team Penske driver has been humbled in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” quick at times in five starts but a best finish of just eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Since joining Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske two years ago, the promising Pagenaud has qualified third and eighth for the race, but ended up 10th and 19th.
“She’s been a good lesson of life, for sure,” Pagenaud said last week.
In other words, just like last year’s breakthrough series title, anything worth achieving must be earned. And the Indianapolis 500, as Pagenaud has learned, requires more than just a top-notch team and car. The 200-lap endurance test on the 2.5-mile oval requires a driver to be smart, display patience and continually improve the car to be in the best position at the end. And a little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.
It’s a reality with which team-mate Will Power is familiar. The 2014 series champion from Australia is a perennial title contender with 29 career wins, tied for 11th on the all-time list with teammate Helio Castroneves and Penske driver coach Rick Mears. Whereas Mears has won the Indy 500 four times and Castroneves has celebrated three victories, Power is still chasing that elusive accomplishment.
He’s certainly had his share of opportunities. Power qualified in the first three rows for nine of his 10 Indy 500 starts and came agonizingly close as a runner-up to team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015. Power has only one other top-five finish in 2009.
“I have no doubt she could smile on me some day,” Pagenaud said.
He mentions how longtime series driver Tony Kanaan was in the hunt so many times — finishing fifth or better five times — before finally swigging the milk and becoming one of the more popular winners in his 12th Indy 500 start in 2013.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Pagenaud said. “I’m learning the roots of this track. Every year, I come with more knowledge. Every year, I feel more confident. Every year, I feel like it’s getting closer. Every year, I feel like I understand the game better.”
“It’s a bit of a maze, but there’s no end to it. At this point, I feel like we’ve got good cars with the best team. Is it going to be this year? Is it going to be next year? I don’t know. But I’m certainly feeling like I’m getting closer,” he added.
Pagenaud, 32, has experienced the thrill of celebrating at the prestigious track. He won his second IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last May. But as every driver knows, and Penske’s record 16 victories remind, the Indy 500 is the prize jewel.
“[At] Team Penske, the 500 is a big highlight of the year,” he said. “We want to regain the crown, so we’re working really hard. The engineers are working really hard at finding extra speed. That’s what we’re here for, validating what they found in the labs basically and trying to get a good direction for the month of May,” Pagenaud added.