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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Simon Pagenaud on his season so far

by Gordon Kirby
Simon Pagenaud has been the man to beat in IndyCar this year. In his second year with Team Penske the 32 year old Frenchman has led the championship since the second round at Phoenix in April. He's won four of the first twelve races, finished second three times, taken six poles and led more laps (329) and races (10) than anyone else.

Going into today's rain-delayed 500-mile race at Pocono, Pagenaud leads the championship by 56 points from teammate Will Power. Helio Castroneves trails in third another 53 points behind chased closely by Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. But unless something dramatic occurs at Pocono today none of them are likely to challenge Pagenaud or Power for this year's IndyCar title.

Last Friday at Pocono I talked to Pagenaud about his season so far and how he has emerged with Team Penske as a likely champion. Simon started our conversation by discussing his best races this year.

"I've had a lot of good races this year," he grinned. "The most accomplished weekend I think was probably the Indy Grand Prix. That was just pure domination."

Indeed, Pagenaud qualified on pole for the road course race at Indianapolis in the middle of May and led all the way, save for pitstops, winning comfortably from teammate Castroneves. Pagenaud is also proud of his win at Mid-Ohio in July.

"I think Mid-Ohio was a triumph over adversity," he remarked. "I was in really bad pack pain. That was a difficult weekend. I could not debrief once all weekend. I just drove the car as it was. My engineer Ben (Bretzman) and my teammates did everything that weekend. I just showed up when the car was in the pitlane and drove the car. Personally, I went through a lot that weekend with pain, but we had a tremendous qualifying and race."

He's also proud of his performances at Elkhart Lake in June and Phoenix in April.

"At Elkhart Lake we had a really strong performance from the whole team, but it didn't show in the results. I think Phoenix was a really good showing. We got caught out by the yellow one time and went to the back of the pack. Then we came back and finished second with some great pitstops. It was a great team effort. It wasn't just driving. I didn't win any races on my own. I won them with Ben and with great pitstops."

This year's Indy 500 was frustrating for Pagenaud as he incurred a pair of pit penalties that forced him to go to the back of the field for two restarts. As he result, he lost a lap and finished a distant nineteenth.

"Indy was heart-breaking because we had a good shot to win the race," he said. "When I started the race I knew we had a good car. It was the 100th running of the race and it's a race I hold dear. To win that race would be a serious accomplishment in anyone's career. That's the one race each year you want to win. That's the one race that you want to get that stands as high as the championship. That's a dream."

Pagenaud reflected on the lessons learned from his first year with Penske in which he was unable to win a race despite showing plenty of speed.

"When you step back and look at it, I feel personally what happened last year was completely normal," he observed. "It had to happen. You can't come into a new team and expect to kick everybody's ass. It's not possible. That's the nature of the competition. Nobody can come into this series with a new team and expect to win. Everybody else is doing a bad job if that was the case and that's not the case. Many teams in IndyCar are doing a good job and the top three teams have been running three and four cars for a few years.

"Here at Team Penske they had been running three cars and when I joined it was the first time the team ran four cars. A number of new people came into the team to work on my car. Ben Bretzman came with me from Schmidt-Peterson because we had a very good relationship. I had never worked with Kyle Moyer before so Kyle was new to me and to the team as well.

"When you move from a small team to a team with 400 people, it's a big organization that reacts quickly but not as quick as a small team like Schmidt. You can't things make happen as quickly because there are more people, more parts.

"So the first year was a bit of a slow start but the performance was there so I was not too worried. I think all the stars aligned by having a very serene communication with everyone on the #22 team. I think last year we were all new people coming on and we were all impressed with Team Penske because of the team that it is.

"It took a bit of adjustment for me personally. I had to adjust to working with new people in a new environment and with new teammates. It needed time to gel and for us to get to know each other and it took us a year to really come together and to relax.

"I think that's what we did last winter. We relaxed. We are able to take the experience from 2015 and go with the team's direction and philosophy. That's the way we've tackled every race and every practice session this year and that's going to be our spirit for the year.

"We all sat down last winter. I had a lot of meetings with Ben trying to pinpoint what we want to do with the car and with Kyle as well working on strategy and linking everybody together. When the season started we laid down the goals and when I say goals we didn't talk about results.

"I think that's the key point. We don't think about results. We think about extracting one hundred percent from everybody at all the races and that's what this team has been doing this year.

"There have been zero mistakes. We had some mechanical issues that were outside our power. That's part of racing. Sometimes you have problems but this team has been performing at the top level all year. Now we're in a good spot but there's still potential to improve and we've got a bright future."

Pagenaud says he's learned a lot from his three teammates.

"Juan has been very helpful to me on the ovals. We have a very similar style on the ovals. We like similar things. It's been an awakening for me to be next to him and Helio and knowing exactly what the car needs to be strong on ovals. It's important because I've never had a teammate with experience so I didn't know what the car was supposed to feel like. I didn't know if I was setting up the car the right way because I never had anyone to compare it to or had any other cars to try.

"The first time I drove a Penske car was at Indy. I said put Helio's setup on it because I wanted to see what it was like and after the first lap I knew I wasn't that far away. Then I said, put Montoya's setup on and it was just what I like. So through the month of May in 2015 I talked to Helio and Juan about what I needed on the oval. I tried to stay really close to what they were doing.

"We've got so much data to look at as well as the in-car camera. I looked at everything and took the time to study and it just felt right. So I took confidence from what I knew and took a mix of what my teammates knew and what I knew and I think it's really working for me now.

"And obviously, as everyone knows Will has been tremendous on the road and street courses so in 2015 I tried to run whatever setup he was running. It didn't suit me that good, to be honest, but it was good for me to know that with the same car I had similar pace. But I needed something different for the race and that's what Ben and I worked for over the winter so that I have a better car for the race and can manage the tires better.

"So it's been very interesting. It's been great to have great teammates. It just provides you with more confidence because you can compare yourself and use all that data. I study a lot, but sometimes, like Mid-Ohio, you just have to get in the car and forget the data and the information and just drive. But all the information has helped me grow and use it to my advantage."

Pagenaud takes great pleasure and confidence from working with Rick Mears.

"Rick is amazing," Simon grins. "I've never seen him in a bad mood. He's always the same and it's nice to have him there because he keeps everything at a good level. There aren't any emotions going up and down. If you do well, it's good. If you do bad, then there's something to learn. There's always a silver lining.

"I like the way Rick looks at racing. I really enjoy having him around. It's a really young relationship but he gives me confidence. When I doubt something I always go to Rick and ask him what he thinks. To me, there's always something to take out of a conversation with Rick. He's voice, his temperament and his character is so calming. I love to talk to him, especially when things are going bad. When things are going good, I'm just happy to see him. I want him to be proud of me."

Pagenaud discussed his approach to IndyCar's last four races of the year.

"I think I'm hitting a peak on my career," he observed. "I'm the best I've been on several levels. So I don't think I have to reinvent the wheel. I think it's working right now really well. I've hit something that's really good. So let's not try anything else.

"There are four races remaining, including two ovals that I really like. My wish would be to have the least amount of stress going into Sonoma, which would not be fun for the fans, but I want to take the outside factors out of the equation. I feel like we've worked really hard and deserve it so that's what I want to try to do. I'm going to do my best to extract the best out of the situation.

"Here at Pocono I feel like we can fight for top five or top three. If the car is comfortable I think we should go out and try to win. Obviously, on the last lap if I'm fighting with someone who's not in the championship and it's too risky to go around him, it might not be worth doing. But I would calculate that on the last lap.

"I don't need anyone to control my fate. I've just go to proactive and on the attack side, not in defense. Same in Texas. We've got to run up front and see where we end up.

"Even if the points drop, or change, I don't think there's any reason to change at Watkins Glen. There's no reason to drive to finish fifth or sixth because you don't know what's going to happen in the last race.

"Watkins Glen is a very interesting track. Testing there was my first time at the tracks so the first few laps were very impressive. There are very few braking events. It's mostly about carrying the speed and momentum and making the car turn as much as possible. It takes time to adjust to, but I enjoyed it. It definitely shows the speed of the Indy cars compared to the Sprint Cup cars.

"I think it's the kind of event that needs to be on the IndyCar schedule. It's an historical track and a great track. I hope it will be just like Road America and it will be great for the fans. One of the things I'm excited to see is the crowds at Road America and Mid-Ohio and I'm happy to see IndyCar feeling like it's on the rise. It's really cool to be part of it."

In closing, I asked Pagenaud what he expected from the next few years and where he might be in ten years.

"This team to me is the best team," he said. "There's Ferrari in Formula 1, of course. But I have no desire to go anywhere else. I'm happy and I would love to drive here at Team Penske for many years to come.

"I'd like to go back to Le Mans some day. I have unfinished business there. So I'd like to compete at Le Mans again, maybe on the down side of my career after many years in IndyCar.

"Racing is my life. I may want to do other things after my racing career but right now my life is all about racing. I see myself racing with Team Penske trying to win as many races and championships as possible. Indy is my dream. I won't give up until I win that race."

Simon says his personal life has also become more complete in recent years thanks to his girlfriend Hailey McDermott.

"I've been with Hailey for four years," he remarked. "It's like being married to us. She's a tremendous help. She's my best friend. She comes to every race and supports me on everything I do. She lives this life just like I do and wants my success just as much as I do. It's awesome to share that passion. She comes from a great family that loves racing and we just got a dog, a Jack Russell terrier.

"It's fun to see my life evolving on that front too. It's brought a great balance to my life that I didn't have before."

Simon Pagenaud is a bright young man and a perfect gentleman. He's shown what he can do and if he wins this year's championship it's not hard to imagine him and Penske winning a number of titles over the coming years. With any kind of luck, an Indy 500 win should also follow.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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