INDIANAPOLIS – Simon Pagenaud is now a member of one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth and the only members of that club are winners of the Indianapolis 500.
Pagenaud became the latest member of that exclusive group when he scored his first Indianapolis 500 win in an epic battle to the finish during the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Last night, Rick Mears was one of the first to text me, ‘Welcome to the club,’” Pagenaud said Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, referring to the last four-time winner of the Indy 500. “Helio (Castroneves) obviously. T.K. (Tony Kanaan) when I left for the parade lap in the convertible at the end. Takuma (Sato) – they all texted me saying, ‘Welcome to the club.’
“I didn’t really get it then.”
The messages kept coming.
“Gil de Ferran last night was in tears, calling, sending me messages, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Again, Will Power. Dario Franchitti this morning sent me a message.
“It’s amazing, all these guys I looked up to, ‘Welcome to the club.’
“When you accomplish your dream, it’s phenomenal. It will be great, when I have kids, I can say, ‘Hey, I did this.’ When they have kids, ‘Hey, grandpa did whatever.”
“It’s just great to be able to think that.”
Pagenaud’s entry into the exclusive Indianapolis 500 winner’s club came after a long, hard battle with the fiercely determined Alexander Rossi over the final 13 laps of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. The two drivers relentlessly traded the lead with some spectacular passes.
Pagenaud made the race-winning pass when he zoomed past Rossi’s Honda with one-and-a-half laps to go entering turn three.
He took the checkered flag just .2086-of-a-second ahead of Rossi. It was a long journey for the Team Penske driver to get there.
“In 2007, I really questioned my career,” Pagenaud recalled. “Champ Car folded, so I wasn’t really known in the IRL (Indy Racing League) paddock. When IndyCar formed, it was very difficult for me to have connection. People didn’t know my worth. I decided to try the sports car route. There seemed to be more opportunities for me there at the time.
“That’s when in April of 2008, I thought I was going to pack up and go back to France and do something else. Gil de Ferran called, and Honda came to the rescue with the Acura program.
“It’s quite fitting that I’m driving for them in sports cars, as well, now with Team Penske and Acura. It was a very tough time on my career because there were a lot of doubts. It wasn’t about talent. It wasn’t about anything else than having an opportunity and showing it in the car.
“I went to sports cars, did really well there. Then with the help of Honda, I came back to IndyCar with Sam Schmidt who gave me a real break. That was my real first break in IndyCar. Obviously, I did three races, Dreyer & Reinbold, Dennis gave me the opportunity to know what I could do. That opened the doors for the Honda deal with Sam Schmidt.
“It’s funny how things just take their place. After a few races, I was already in touch with Roger (Penske). That was my dream. It’s always been my dream to go to Team Penske. Certainly, my career with Sam, Honda really was a steppingstone going up and going to Team Penske.”
That is one reason why his conversation with de Ferran was so gratifying and emotional.
“I saw him before the race and was already really proud for the pole,” Pagenaud said. “He said, ‘Man, I’ve been watching. You’re the best out there. Go get it.’
“I had a lot of support from him throughout the years. He’s been a very important part of my improvement, my development as a driver.
“Without him, I don’t think I would have unlocked so much potential. So, he has definitely a very special place in my heart.
“I sent a message. I said, ‘Thank you for everything, all your advice worked.’”
On Monday night, Pagenaud is expected to collect $2.5 million for his victory at the annual Indianapolis 500 Victory Awards Celebration at the JW Marriott.
“I’m looking forward to getting a Corvette,” Pagenaud said of the Pace Car, which is given annually to the Indianapolis 500 winner. “That’s pretty cool. I get a Corvette, wine color, burgundy. It was meant to be, I guess. I’m looking forward to that.
“I’m looking forward to celebrate with my peers tonight, see the car on stage. I think that’s going to be when I realize what’s happened. Look forward to going to New York tomorrow. We will see what we do there. I think there’s going to be quite a bit of attendance. I’m excited about that.
“My face on the trophy. Taking the trophy to France would be very special. That’s just because that’s where I was born. Obviously, it would be a special moment.”
Pagenaud hasn’t stopped celebrating since he stopped at the Yard of Bricks instead of victory Llne at the end of the Indianapolis 500. He wanted to share the moment with the fans, rather than go to victory lane first.
It was his way of entering the Indianapolis 500 winner’s club.
“This place is mythical,” Pagenaud said of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “When you win, you’re part of the history. I just feel super honored. It doesn’t feel real because I don’t hold myself up high like that, I don’t believe in myself as somebody special. It doesn’t feel right to say it even.
“Quite frankly, I’m not quite done with my career. I just turned 35. I have more than a decade ahead of me. So, I’ll be here for a while.”