Simon Pagenaud will never forget, as a 12-year-old racing fan, the disappointment of being turned away when trying to meet a driver.
That’s why the 35-year-old Team Penske driver is always mindful, no matter how intense racing becomes on track, there’s only one opportunity to make a positive first impression with fans.
The 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion, who celebrated a career accomplishment by winning May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and finished second in the 2019 point standings to teammate Josef Newgarden, insists success will never change his affable nature.
“My goal in my racing career is I want people to think that racing is approachable,” he said. “I want people to have a full experience when they come to the race track.
“When I was a kid, I went up to a driver that I really liked and he turned me down. I always told myself I would never do that. That shaped me. I always told myself if I ever make it, if I ever become a race car driver, which at the time seemed very unlikely, I wanted to make sure that I never do what he did to me. I thought it was embarrassing for him and disgusting. I remember that feeling as a kid. I hated it. I promised myself I would never make a kid feel that way.”
That’s why nobody in the paddock is more enjoyable to meet than the fun-loving Frenchman, always eager to sign autographs and interact with fans.
Pagenaud credits his parents, sister and his wife, Hailey McDermott, for helping him balance the intensely competitive drive of racing with making the most of mingling with people.
“I’ve got great friends and they keep me grounded,” Pagenaud said. “Naturally, my family has also been very grounded, too.”
Pagenaud laughed at the assertion he’s a “really good guy.”
“Well, I’m glad you think so,” he said.
After coming so close to another championship, those racing juices inevitably flow. The “really good guy” admits he can get “really intense.”
“I’m hungry for success. I’m motivated and determined,” Pagenaud said. “But racing, you get that result that day. The next day is a new day. You can never really savor what happened because the next day is in question again. You might be the best on that day, but the next day, you might not be.
“The goal is to be the best every day. It’s a constant chase. You can never really relax or think you’ve done it and you’re the man because you’re not the man. Tomorrow morning, someone else could do better than you. That’s my way of looking at it. I’m constantly trying to find ways to get better.”
When Pagenaud was making his way up the INDYCAR ladder, he said his No. 1 goal was to win a championship. After he did that in his second season driving for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske, he set his sights winning on the Indianapolis 500. Now that he’s accomplished both, what’s the next goal?
“Do it over again,” he said. “My No. 1 goal is Indy, no question, for next year and the years to come. And then we’ll try to go again for another championship, but my No. 1 goal is going to be Indy from now on.
“It’s always difficult to focus on several things at once, so I like to start the season focused on Indy. After that, you still have a lot of racing to go to and focus on the championship.”
Pagenaud doesn’t hesitate when asked who was the last driver to win the Indy 500 and a series title in the same year.
“Dario, 2010,” he said, referring to Dario Franchitti. “Would be a 10-year anniversary, I guess. I almost did it.”
Pagenaud’s bid to repeat as series champion in 2017 came up 13 points shy of Newgarden.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “Both of my dreams have been realized. Now I have to make the dream happen again. I’m very fulfilled in my career. It’s amazing to be 35 years old and not finished at all, having a whole decade ahead of me and still a lot to accomplish.”
And that also means more time to make new friends and provide lasting positive memories to fans.
“When you grow as a person, you have times in your life when things mark you,” Pagenaud said. “That’s what shapes you into who you are. As long as you remember where you come from, that’s what makes you.”