Detroit — Simon Pagenaud said he felt no pressure heading into the Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader weekend.
Pagenaud showed his ability to handle the pressure when he had a May of a lifetime, sweeping the IndyCar month by winning the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the pole for the Indy 500, followed by the Indy 500 victory Sunday.
“No, I feel like I can fly free now,” Pagenaud, the 35-year-old Frenchman, said when asked if he felt more pressure for the doubleheader after his Indy 500 win. “I feel like I’ve accomplished my lifelong dream. I feel like I can breathe a little bit just because that was the pressure I was putting on myself.
“I wanted my name to become important in racing for my kids. I don’t have kids yet, but for my future kids and their kids and our family. It’s amazing to think that I’m not from a racing family so I hope I’m building something here. For those reasons, I’m really proud and that’s what’s special I think for a human being is to be able to say you’ve put your print on your industry.”
Still, a strong finish or two this weekend will be important if Pagenaud hopes to win a second IndyCar Series championship.
He is the points leader heading into the doubleheader, 70-lap races run Saturday and Sunday, around the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course.
And Pagenaud would love nothing more, especially now that he has the Indy 500 win under his belt, than to win on Belle Isle for race sponsor Chevrolet since Honda drivers have won both races the last two years — including Graham Rahal’s clean sweep in 2017 and Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2018.
“It’s our No. 2 priority, right after the Indianapolis 500, so we’ve checked that box and now it’s time to focus on Detroit with 100 points available here, which is huge for the championship,” Pagenaud said. “We want to make Chevy proud. It’s Chevy’s town.
"It’s also Roger’s (Penske) town. He does so much for Belle Isle and Detroit and the best way to reward him is to get a win.”
Pagenaud said his final 13-lap shootout with Alexander Rossi in the Indy 500 — which had five lead changes with Pagenaud overtaking Rossi with just over a lap remaining — was “just my finest moment in racing.”
Two-time Detroit Grand Prix winner Graham Rahal and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears preview the Indy 500 and the doubleheader races on Belle Isle. The Detroit News
“On an oval at this kind of speed, you’re doing 230 miles-an-hour, you’re dicing, you’re like one inch apart from each other and you’ve got to drive in the mirrors to counteract your opponent,” Pagenaud said. “It’s such a chess game. There’s a lot of thinking, a big thinking process while you’re still driving at these kind of speeds.
“For me, it was very clear, very quiet moment, honestly that’s why it was one my finest. I just had to do whatever I had to do and there was no thinking about the outcome or thinking about any negative thoughts, just do and very enjoyable moment.”
Pagenaud’s job was rumored to be in jeopardy heading into the month of May, with Penske possibly replacing him at the end of the year with Rossi.
Pagenaud won the 2016 IndyCar Series championship for Team Penske, then finished runner-up to teammate Josef Newgarden in ’17, but followed that up with a 23-race winless streak before the Indy Grand Prix victory.
“It was great for Roger to get his 18th in his 50th year,” said Team Penske driver Will Power, who won the 2018 Indy 500 and was IndyCar Series champ in 2014, finishing third in the points chase last year. “It was obviously great for Simon too, certainly on the ropes let’s say, in a tough spot in his career so he really just cemented his spot at Penske there. I know how it feels and it’s fantastic.”
It was the 18th Indy 500 victory for car Penske, who was celebrating his 50th year of racing in IndyCar’s biggest race.
“It’s one of those ones where you leave and you know you’ve won but you don’t know how,” Penske said. “It was a great run by Simon. His commitment coming into the month of May with a win in the rain against Dixon (in Indy Grand Prix) who is one of the best in the business. Then, of course qualifying, everybody laid it on the line there and he came out on top, and then to lead 116 laps — our team led 145 so we were competitive — but it came down to the last six or seven laps on who was going to become the real winner.
“They (Pagenaud, Rossi) were back and forth and Rossi is an excellent driver and he wanted it too. When you get down there, and the Indianapolis 500 is on the line, you have four or five laps to go, you throw everything out the window and go for it.”
So, how does Pagenaud’s shootout win over Rossi compare to some of Penske’s other great victory battles?
“I would say the 2006 race when (Sam) Hornish beat Marco (Andretti) was one, then in ’91 ironically when Rick Mears passed Michael Andretti, those would be the three that would come to my mind,” Penske said. “Obviously, we got beat, Helio (Castroneves) got beat two years, once by (Takumo) Sato and once by Hunter Reay by passing him the lap before, but there wasn’t the duel that you had here so it was unique for sure.
“Every corner, every lap you didn’t know who was going to be fast enough to get off the corner. Obviously, we had a good car, Simon was at his best and it was dominant all day, very few changes to the car. We were the No. 1 team on pit road."
Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the Indy 500 in 1993 for Penske, said he was happy for his former boss.
“Roger did a fantastic job in Indianapolis this year, his 50 years and another win,” Fittipaldi said. “I was watching and the last 10 laps were incredible this year.
“Roger has a phrase that he says with everything in life: effort equals results. I learned with Roger. He puts a lot of effort and a lot of dedication. He’s a perfectionist.”
While Fittipaldi won the Indy 500 for Penske in 1993, he won the Indy 500 back in 1989 for Jackson businessman Pat Patrick in a duel with Al Unser Jr.
“That was 30 years ago, I won at Indy and then here on the streets of Detroit (the next week),” Fittipaldi said. “I remember the last few laps was an incredible dice with Junior. I got in traffic, then going into Turn 3 (on Lap 199) I was on the inside and he was on the outside and I wasn’t going to back off and he wasn’t going to back off and I knew one of the cars was going to come out of the corner, but if I’d be in his place and if he’d be in my place we’d do exactly the same.”
Now Pagenaud is focused on winning on Belle Isle. He won his first career race on Belle Isle in 2013 while driving for Schmidt/Peterson/Hamilton Motorsports, then finished third for Team Penske in 2015 and second during his championship season in ’16.
What’s the biggest challenge of Belle Isle?
“The big challenge for us is the fact that we’ve been in Indianapolis for so long where it’s a very smooth track, very flowing speeds, going left only and now we’re going to have to brake really hard, turn left and right, dance with the car on top of the bumps which is a lot of fun to do, but it is a different set of skills. We’re going to have to work really hard with the engineers to try to figure out how to make the car the best we can and then just grind, just keep pushing.”
Newgarden was second-fastest in practice Friday behind Rossi, with Dixon third, Power fourth and Rahal fifth. Pagenaud was ninth in the charts, spinning and tapping the wall late in the session, suffering slight damage to his left front.
Detroit Grand Prix highlights
8 a.m. — Gates open
9:15 a.m. — Trans Am Series Race 1
10:45 a.m. — NTT IndyCar Series Race 1 qualifying
11:45 a.m. — IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship open grid fan walk (pit lane)
12:30 p.m. — IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Race
12:45 p.m. — NTT IndyCar Series drivers autograph session (Firestone Fan Village within Meijer Fan Zone)
3:30 p.m. — NTT IndyCar Series Race 1
6 p.m. — Frankie Ballard concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)
8 a.m. — Gates open
10 a.m. — Trans Am Series drivers autograph session (Heritage Exhibit Tent)
10:45 a.m. — NTT IndyCar Series Race 2 qualifying
11:45 a.m. — Trans Am Series Race 2
1 p.m. — Stone Temple Pilots concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)
2 p.m. — 30th Detroit Grand Prix celebration activities
3:30 p.m. — NTT IndyCar Series Race 2