Wearing a specially-designed helmet in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on May 25 as a tribute to three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, who died 20 years ago this month in a Formula One race in Italy, was an idea that began percolating in Simon Pagenaud's mind a few months ago though he's revered and privately honored Senna for years.
Pagenaud was choked with emotion as he explained what the Brazilian meant to an aspiring race car driver in France, who never had the opportunity to meet his hero.
"Ayrton Senna has been the inspiration for my entire life, whether I'm in a race car or not," said Pagenaud, whose helmet will intermix Senna's yellow/green design with his red scheme. "He was my hero as a child, my role model as a teenager and my example as a human and a race car driver."
Pagenaud, with an introduction from 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran, contacted the Senna family several months ago to broach the idea. After the Indianapolis 500, the commemorative helmet will be auctioned to benefit the Ayrton Senna Institute, which promotes children's literacy efforts in Brazil.
"I have always found myself in Senna's explanation of what driving a race car feels like," Pagenaud said. "I have read, analyzed and studied his racecraft. I've always found so much strength in the dedication he committed to driving to perfection. Senna inspired people throughout the entire world, and his legacy lives on through the Ayrton Senna Institute, which was established by his sister, Viviane. I'm truly honored that Viviane and her son have allowed me to be part of this special opportunity to commemorate Ayrton's memory at the Indianapolis 500.
"I'm so excited to have this opportunity to thank Ayrton for what he has taught me up to this day and what he will continue to teach me in the future."
Senna won the Formula One World Championship in 1988, 1990 and 1991 and is universally considered as one of the greatest racing drivers in history after recording 41 victories, 80 podium finishes and 65 pole positions in 162 F1 races.
Pagenaud was joined at the unveiling of the helmet by three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, reigning race winner Tony Kanaan and de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indy 500.
"The Brazilians that are up here represent five Indy 500 (wins) and we're still not as big as him and never will be," Kanaan said. "Since he passed, the only ones who have won championships from Brazil are the three guys up here, which is a big deal but we're not trying to match him because we never could."
Added de Ferran: "This tribute is not only a touching tribute but a personal one because as everyone knows your helmet is something very personal. Ayrton is still a national hero and continues to inspire people to this day. To see somebody from another country feeling the same way as Helio, Tony and myself -- all Brazilians -- is also very touching."
Pagenaud, who won the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course May 10, will make his qualifying attempts for the 98th Indy 500 on May 17-18 in the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports entry.