Race Weekend Central

Simon Pagenaud Sits on the Precipice of All-Time IndyCar Moment

After a masterful drive to his third-straight Verizon IndyCar Series win, Simon Pagenaud is poised to enter the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a chance to harken back to the days of old by adding his face to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

After a winless debut season with Team Penske in 2015, Pagenaud has come into his own this year. Courtesy of clinical performances and outstanding strategy from his team, the driver of the No. 22 Chevrolet has placed a stranglehold on the IndyCar paddock that’s left them searching for creative ways to slow him down.

“Maybe give him some Canadian wine,” Penske teammate Helio Castroneves joked after finishing second to Pagenaud in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“Give him some Canadian beer, because it’s way stronger than the beer here,” James Hinchcliffe responded with a smile.

The field joked about Pagenaud’s success to the media, but their efforts to thwart him have been quite real. From Castroneves and Conor Daly running differing pit strategies to Hinchcliffe’s team short-fueling his No. 5 Arrow Honda on pit road, the field tried every conceivable strategy to top Pagenaud at the IMS road course, all to no avail.

Whether his car’s livery has shown a reserved shade of blue, or blinding streaks of Menards yellow, Pagenaud has shined bright throughout the season to earn a 76-point advantage in the series championship.

Now, the Frenchman has his eyes set on racing’s biggest prize, and perhaps a piece of history for both himself and France.

“The big one is coming, the Crown Jewel,” said Pagenaud. “I like to call it that way, the Crown Jewel of racing. To me, it’s the best race in the world, the most famous, the most prestigious, and it’s special really to be a part of it.

“I’m in a car that can win the race and with a team that knows how to win that race. I’m just going to put my head down next week. It certainly would mean — it would be the accomplishment of my career, personally, if I can put my name on that one, some day. I would just be complete personally.”

While winning the 100th edition of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ would be career-defining for any driver, there’s much more at stake for Pagenaud.

The Frenchman, who turns 32 on May 18, can set the mark for most consecutive wins since the creation of IndyCar with four-straight victories if he triumphs in the Indianapolis 500. Many of his closest competitors have reached three-straight wins – Scott Dixon in 2013 and Will Power in 2013-14 immediately come to mind – but each driver has been shut out in their attempt at a fourth victory. A win on the 2.5-mile IMS oval would rank Pagenaud’s current streak among the best since the series was founded in 1996.

While he may not know it, a victory for Pagenaud in the Indy 500 would also be historic for his home country of France.

Ask any serious fan of the Indianapolis 500 who won the first edition of the race in 1911, and most will know that it was Spartanburg, Pennsylvania’s Ray Harroun, who briefly came out of retirement to drive the race before re-retiring in victory circle.

However, peer a bit further into the history books, and you’ll discover that French drivers won three of the first eight 500-mile races.

The first French win in Indianapolis came on May 30, 1913, when Frenchman Jules Goux claimed the event in a car owned and manufactured by Peugeot. Goux was one of six Europeans that came to Indianapolis that year, enticed by the rich $20,000 prize for winning. He would be the first non-American to win the event.

One year later, in 1914, the French drivers again made their presence known, claiming three of the top four spots as Périgeux’s René Thomas took the victory behind the wheel of a Delage.

France would again claim a victory in 1920, as Gaston Chevrolet benefitted from leader Ralph DePalma stalling on lap 187 to score the race win. Chevrolet, younger brother of Chevrolet car company founder Louis Chevrolet, would tragically pass away later in that year after a vicious crash at Los Angeles Speedway.

(Photo: Doug Mathews/INDYCAR)
Simon Pagenaud will have a chance at history in two weeks, both for himself and France. (Photo: Doug Mathews/INDYCAR)

French drivers were a constant presence in the early days of the Indy 500, but in the years since, they’ve gone dormant. No true French driver has claimed the race since Chevrolet’s 1920 triumph, lest you count 2003 winner Gil de Ferran, who was born in France but raised in Brazil.

96 years removed from Chevrolet’s dramatic victory at the famed Brickyard, French fans hope that Pagenaud is the driver they’ve been waiting for, the one that can return the nation to the pinnacle of motorsport.

The odds won’t be in Pagenaud’s favor come May 29. Sure, he’ll have an advantage driving for Team Penske, a team with 16 Indy 500 victories. But Pagenaud has never won an IndyCar race on an oval, and he’ll need to outgun teammates Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power – with five Indy 500s and two championships between them – just to finish highest on the team.

Still, Pagenaud enters the biggest Month of May in recent history with all of the confidence in the world. If the Frenchman can once again run a mistake-free race, he might just have a chance at one of the great runs in open wheel history.

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IndyCar includes all data from the AAA, USAC, CART, and Champ Car eras in their record book now, so the real order for consecutive wins is A.J. Foyt’s 7 to start the 1964 season. While Pagenaud would set the record for the series that started in 1996 if he won, IndyCar would not and should not officially count that as the record. Al Unser, Jr., Alex Zanardi, Cristiano da Matta, and Sebastien Bourdais also managed 4 wins in a row during the CART/Champ Car years…and three of those happened after the split began.

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