When you achieve a Championship, it’s easy to wonder how you get much better than that, but when we spoke to Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud back in January, he saw his racing career similar to the type of cars he races. With an Indy car, you constantly find new ways to push it to the limit, get just a bit more out of the machine, and Pagenaud continues to find opportunity after opportunity to improve himself and his on-track abilities,
“It’s about being disciplined. Reflecting on 2016 and how I can improve myself physically and mentally, my racecraft. I’m the quarterback on my team and looking at every race, see(ing) how we can do better and attack(ing) it with that better, new strategy.
There’s always different departments you can work on. We can’t rest on our laurels. We have to stay hungry.”
A repeat Championship is obviously part of that hunger, but Pagenaud has made it apparent early on in the year that his biggest focus is doing well, and preferably winning, on oval tracks. Now that he has his first win on an oval, his confidence has to be soaring just a bit higher as they work through issues and develop strategy during Indianapolis 500 practice this month.
“We didn’t qualify well at IMS in 2016. Maybe we need a different approach because in 2015 we qualified better.
Trusting what you have and keeping focus on raceday is the most important. Working on our skills in traffic during two weeks of testing is key.”
Every May, the field has a handful of incidents during practice, ranging from kissing the wall with those beautiful Firestone tires and leaving a skid mark or two, to more severe accidents like that of James Hinchcliffe back in 2015, and in some unfortunate cases, fatalities like that of Tony Renna in 2003.
Safety is always at the forefront of the minds of drivers, crews, spectators, etc. The advancements made over just the past decade have come in quickly and been implemented efficiently, saving countless lives. Pagenaud commented on this as well, as it’s one of the most frequent discussion points when driving well over 200 mph,
“If you look at the evolution of time, 30 yrs ago it was acceptable to lose a driver or crew in the pits. It’s no longer acceptable. IndyCar has made an incredible evolution. Being able to protect your driver the way we can at 240 mph at IMS shows that we are definitely going the right way.”
Pagenaud has a solid start to his third season with Team Penske, and he’s just as thrilled to be with Roger and his crew as he was when he first signed. He understands the significance of having his name attached to Team Penske, and respects that. In fact, when I spoke to him in St. Petersburg during the 2017 season kickoff weekend, he sounded like he would be more than happy to stay there for his entire racing career,
“We drive for a brand. For something historical. You have to race for the team. It’s your right to be the best of the four. To compete against each other.
In 2015, the performance was there but we couldn’t finish the job. 2016 we were really on the same page. The whole team this year is the same. Roger calls it ‘human capital’ and for me it’s the same. If I can be with my guys for 10 more years… I mean, that would be great success!”
He paused to clarify that Roger would probably laugh at him if he asked for a 10 year contract, but added, “Hey, I’ll just have to figure it out!”
Another thing that Chevy teams have been trying to figure out is how the heck Honda came in so hot at the start of this season! The amount of work Honda did in the off-season to fine-tune their engines and find an additional edge to truly compete with Chevy is obvious. They won the first two races and maintained the points lead for the first three events. They are up at the top of the speed charts during the first few days of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the full field prepares for the 500 in a couple of weeks.
Prior to any race results, Pagenaud spoke to me about what kind of competition they expected from Honda, based only on Chip Ganassi Racing Teams switch over to the manufacturer, bringing veteran drivers like Dixon and Kanaan to the Honda side.
“Dixon’s gonna be a big threat. But I wanna keep that order (1,2,3,4) for the championship. We (Team Penske) try to take it to a limit where it’s not easy to pass each other, but we try not to wreck each other either. That’s the biggest thing in the team.”
Pagenaud was spot on with his assessment of Dixon – who has also finished in the Top 5 for all five events in 2017, but because none of those results were wins, he sits second in the points race, just 10 points behind Pagenaud.
Honda is always a strong contender on superspeedways, and especially at IMS. And while Honda and Chevy teams may go head to head in a battle to the checkereds on race weekends, the 2-week build up in Speedway, IN every year just increases that tension and creates a thirst for victory that nothing but a jug of milk in victory lane can quench.
So while drivers and teams might have different approaches to win and different ways to gain an edge, Pagenaud brought up a point that I believe everyone in the paddock could relate to,
“There’s no better place. No better series in the world.”
He went on to describe the perfect fit of both IndyCar and Team Penske on a personal note,
“This is the best I can find for my specialties and the kind of racing I like. This is a true race team. That’s great for drivers because you end up with great equipment at every track and you have fun racing.”
And while racing is the only profession that Indy car drivers can really contemplate, it’s not as glamorous and exciting as it might always appear from the outside. The reigning champ also let us in just enough to show the vulnerability and sacrifices that are necessary to be successful in this racing series…
“What might not transpire, is how hard it is to live this life. It looks shiny. But there’s a lot of work in the background that’s never seen. It’s 24/7. Not much room for personal life, friends, anything other than being selfish about your career. It’s a very selfish life. I love competition, I would be really bored otherwise, and that’s not a good life.”
So you see, it all comes down to doing what you love and loving what you do. Unashamedly going after what you want, what makes you happy, and what will create the best opportunities for success, even if they are outside what many people might be able to understand, or beyond what they would be willing to commit, sacrifice, and follow through with. We all have our own path and it’s our right to follow it and build the life we want. Live full throttle, people. I’m trying to tell ya…
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