Aside from Helio Castroneves, who will bid for his record-setting fifth Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge victory Sunday, May 29, there might not be an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver more excited to be back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Month of May than Simon Pagenaud.
The driver of Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 AutoNation/XM Honda is one of three INDYCAR SERIES drivers to have won races both on facility’s road course and its oval, and only Team Penske’s Will Power has won at IMS with more regularity. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is the other driver with wins on both circuits.
Like Castroneves, Pagenaud’s success at the Racing Capital of the World has come with two different teams – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Team Penske – and he is eager to add a third team to that list.
“You can really feel the potential (with MSR),” Pagenaud said.
That combination showed particularly well last weekend in the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, when Pagenaud gained 13 positions in the 90-lap race at Barber Motorsports Park to finish 11th. Only Power (15 positions) made a bigger gain in the wildly competitive event on a track where passing opportunities are difficult to find.
Castroneves gave MSR its first INDYCAR SERIES victory in last year’s “500,” and it seems the combination of Castroneves and Pagenaud is poised to take the team co-owned by Michael Shank and Jim Meyer to new heights in the months to come.
It might start with this month, and it would be ill-advised to overlook the experienced Pagenaud, who turns 38 on May 18.
Power tops the road course with five INDYCAR SERIES race wins and five NTT P1 Awards for being the fastest qualifier, but Pagenaud has won three races (2014, 2016 and 2019) and a pole (2016). Pagenaud finished sixth in last year’s GMR Grand Prix and has always considered this 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course one of his favorite tracks.
Obviously, the oval has suited Pagenaud well, too, with a win from the pole in 2019. He also has three front-row starts and last year’s late charge had the attention of Castroneves.
Pagenaud had started 26th a year ago, the lowest position of his Indy 500 career, and he had gained only one position ahead of the first pit stop. It took 70 laps for him to crack the top 20, and 125 laps before his car number appeared in the top 10. But after that, well, he was on the move.
Pagenaud’s speed was particularly noticeable in the closing laps. Sixth on Lap 192, the Frenchman took fifth the next lap, snared fourth the lap after that and moved to third with about a lap to go. While Castroneves was overhauling Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou for the lead on Lap 199, the Brazilian said his most concerned about Pagenaud.
“Simon was really coming there at the end,” Castroneves said. “If the race had been a lap or two longer it might have been a different (outcome).”
Pagenaud came out last month’s Open Test at IMS optimistic about his chances to become the 21st driver in history to have won multiple “500s,” but he also cautioned about the work that still needs to be done.
“It's different (from last year) because I had been with the same team for seven years,” he said, alluding to his long stint at Team Penske. “Pretty much the setup on the race car didn’t change that much, and we were in a completely different state of readiness going into the Month of May.
“(At MSR), it’s obviously a learning curve for everybody – them learning me and me learning them. We’re trying to communicate and make the right changes for me and for the race car and make sure we build something that’s going to be a winning combination. But we’re not there yet. So, I can’t say that I’m going to go win the race tomorrow because it wouldn’t be true. We’ve got work to do.”
Official practice for the “500” begins Tuesday, May 17. Before that, the GMR Grand Prix has everyone’s attention with on-track activity May 13-14.
“It takes time to (come together),” Pagenaud said. “Then, you’ve got to be really patient (and) keep the emotions in check. As I said, the potential here is amazing, but we just have to be patient about when we’re going to start unlocking results.”
As Pagenaud walked away from the conversation, he was reminded of how much attention Castroneves had on him last year. People should keep an eye on him this year, too.
“That would be wise,” he said with a smile.