INDIANAPOLIS – As chaos erupted around him in the pits – crew members hugging and high-fiving, people coming at him from all directions to offer congratulations – the man who called Saturday’s rainy, come-from-behind strategy remained as calm as he had been throughout it.
Not surprising, really. Kyle Moyer has called a few of these before.
Moyer decided to forego track position for rain tires by asking Simon Pagenaud to pit from the lead under caution with 22 laps remaining in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The decision dropped Pagenaud and the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet back to sixth place, but Pagenaud used the newfound grip and his skill at racing in the rain to pass five drivers – including Scott Dixon for the lead on the final lap – to win the sixth annual NTT IndyCar Series event on the IMS road course for a third time.
As the crew celebrated, Moyer, Pagenaud’s strategist and Team Penske’s general manager, stood on the pit wall, headset still on, quietly talking to Pagenaud and others on the team’s radio channels.
Once he finished the radio congratulations, Moyer, a veteran of more than 30 years with five Indy car teams, turned to praising his driver.
“You see things like that every so often, but it’s nice to be on this side of it, for sure,” Moyer said. “That’s a guy who can win a championship for you and also can win any race for you.”
In the wet, though, Pagenaud is more than a winner. He's an artist.
“I honestly always hope for rain because I love to drive in the rain,” Pagenaud said. “It’s such a fun exercise. You have to balance the car with your feet and your hands and play with it, dance with it. That’s where driving really comes out. On a dry track, it’s very much repetitive. In the wet, it’s more like what I grew up on – dirt racing.”
As the sky couldn’t decide whether it wanted to rain or not during the waning laps, Pagenaud was at his wet-surface best, shining bright in his day-glo yellow car despite the dreary conditions. On the restart with 17 laps remaining, Pagenaud trailed Dixon, Jack Harvey, Spencer Pigot, Matheus Leist and Ed Jones. Seven laps after the restart, Pagenaud had tracked down Leist, then in third place, with a move around the outside in Turn 1.
“My car was very, very good under braking,” Pagenaud said. “I could really experiment with that and fake some moves on people. By doing that, they were thrown off their game, and I would gain time in corners and get them on the exit.”
Five laps after overtaking Leist, Pagenaud chased down Harvey, passing him for second place – again in Turn 1 – with six laps remaining.
“I saw this yellow dart suddenly just like arrive straight at the apex,” Harvey said, “and thought, ‘Man, that was pretty brave,’ and ‘thank God his car is so bright.’ Clearly, Simon had a very quick car today.”
Pagenaud and his yellow dart weren’t finished. Dixon was several seconds ahead, but Pagenaud was rapidly gaining ground while Dixon was struggling to control the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. On the penultimate lap, Pagenaud approached Dixon in Turn 7, raced alongside through Turn 8, then emerged with the lead as the cars exited Turn 9.
Just as Moyer had planned, rain or otherwise.
“Simon's a good driver in the rain, but the car was fantastic from the start of the race to the end,” Moyer said. “We were actually planning on the rain and hoping for the rain, but then at the same time we were probably one of the fastest cars in the dry, too.”
Dixon, who led 39 of the race’s 85 laps, knew Pagenaud was closing quickly but was powerless to prevent the pass.
“I just couldn’t turn,” Dixon said. “I was almost helpless to stop the car to get it to rotate. … I had fantastic traction, but I couldn’t get the car to turn.”
As the mayhem in the No. 22 pit began to subside, John Menard, the longtime former Indy car team owner and current sponsorship partner with Team Penske, reveled in what he just witnessed with his home improvement store’s logo on the side of the winning car for the second time in four years at the race.
“That was all Simon with a good strategy and a really good car,” Menard said. “Wow! The rain and everything played out just right. We thought we were in trouble there at one point, but it all worked out. … Simon is good. Really good.”
Good enough, indeed. The 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion and native of Montmorillon, France, further entrenched his reputation as the rain king with a memorable drive he credits to his upbringing that included extensive wet testing in sports cars.
“Quite frankly, in France it rains all the time, especially where I’m from,” the 34-year-old Pagenaud said. “I’ve done a lot of laps in the rain in my career, and always loved it. The first few laps I did in the rain (as a young driver), I crashed a lot, but I was fast. I just had to figure out how to dial it back a little bit. It’s working.”