INDIANAPOLIS – When a racing driver wins the Indianapolis 500, it becomes a part of history. His face is added to the Borg-Warner Trophy, and he becomes part of the legendary legacy that is the world’s most famous race.
It’s a contest that started in 1911, survived two World Wars and now is enduring the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
There are many reasons why winning the Indianapolis 500 changes a driver’s career and life. Even fewer drivers have won the race in consecutive years.
The last time that happened was with Helio Castroneves winning as a rookie in 2001 and repeating in 2002. The Brazilian is the only driver to win his first two Indianapolis 500s, and he was the first driver to go back-to-back at the Speedway since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971.
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud won a dramatic “500” in 2019. He will attempt to join Wilbur Shaw (1939, 1940), Mauri Rose (1947-48), Bill Vukovich (1953-54), Unser and Castroneves as back-to-back champions in the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, on Aug. 23 (NBC and WTHR-13).
If Pagenaud is successful, he will collect an additional $360,000 from longtime race and series sponsor BorgWarner. Each year since 1995, BorgWarner has added $20,000 to a rolling jackpot. If a driver doesn’t win in consecutive years, the jackpot increases.
“BorgWarner has a long history with this prestigious motorsport event, from awarding the Borg-Warner Trophy to being the official turbocharger supplier of the race, the Indianapolis 500 is deep-seated within our company,” said Frédéric Lissalde, President and CEO, BorgWarner Inc. “The rolling jackpot that BorgWarner increases each year adds even more excitement to this legendary race.”
If Pagenaud does not end up in Victory Circle, the $360,000 will carry over to the 2021 race with an additional $20,000 added by BorgWarner, a leader in clean and efficient propulsion systems. If Pagenaud is the victor, the rolling jackpot will start over at $20,000 next year.
It has been 18 years since the “500” has had a back-to-back winner, a testament to how difficult it is to win the 500-Mile Race.
“We all say it, but that race does seem to choose a winner,” Pagenaud said. “You can do everything you can to win it. You can make sure that you put everything in order, that you can make all the right decisions and bring your A-game on that day that you can do all that stuff.
“But something might take it away from you. It's only once a year. It is probably very hard to do it, especially consecutively. It's almost impossible, but I believe in my chances.”
Pagenaud’s chances are boosted by an outstanding start to the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. He enters Wednesday’s opening day of practice second in the standings behind five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon. Pagenaud also has momentum with his charge from last place to the win in an oval race at Iowa Speedway on July 17.
Also, Pagenaud dominated last year’s race by leading 116 laps before having to hold back Alexander Rossi at the end of the race.
“I'm not thinking too much about last year, I'm just trying to go into this race,” Pagenaud said. “I’m just making sure that we iron out everything, and we don't leave any details or any stone unturned. That's really my main focus this year and make sure that the race car suits me so I can do something like I showed you I can do last year.
“That's really my goal.”
With the exception of World War, I and World War II, Pagenaud’s wait to defend the previous year’s Indianapolis 500 is the longest in history. The race was originally scheduled for May 24, but COVID-19 forced it to be moved to Aug. 23.
“It's been a long wait, that's for sure,” Pagenaud said. “It has been a serious anticipation on my part just because I love that race. I love the event, and I want to go back. It's my favorite race. It is my favorite track. It is the favorite feel I get throughout the entire year in the race car, and I've learned to love it.
“It sucks when you don't get to do what you love.”
INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway have taken tremendous steps to ensure this year’s race is held. Ultimately, the only way that could happen was without spectators in the interest of public health because of COVID-19.
“I was very worried we weren't going to race this year, so I'm relieved that we are going to get to race, but it's a pain that we won't have any fans,” Pagenaud said. “We get to do what we love we get to show what we love once again, and to me to me, that's everything.”
Beyond the potential of winning $360,000, this year’s winner will have his likeness permanently affixed to the Borg-Warner Trophy. Additionally, at a later date the winner will be presented with a miniature version of the coveted Borg-Warner Trophy, known as the BorgWarner Championship Driver’s Trophy, or “Baby Borg,” to keep for themselves.
Pagenaud is one of eight former winners in this year’s “500,” the most since 1992.
That title of “Indianapolis 500 winner” is something that can never be taken away from the Team Penske star.
“It’s massive,” Pagenaud said of winning the race. “I actually had a conversation with Haley, my wife, last night. It was one of those moments when you just relax, you sit on the couch, and you say ‘Hey, you know, I feel really good going in this year because I don't have that pressure of knowing if I ever will put my name on that race or if I will have a chance to experience winning it.’
“When you've won it, it's such a relief. It's such a satisfying knowledge, looking back at what you have done and your trophies and knowing that you've climbed the highest peak in racing.
“It's a chance now to race a lot freer so I can just focus on myself a lot more and not worry about the outcome as much. Now, I don't have to worry about this at all. I can just go forward and that's that is something I'm really excited about.”