Simon Pagenaud On the Emotion of His Indy 500 Win

The newly crowned champion came to our office to talk about the race, and what comes after.

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IndyCar/Stephen King

This year's Indy 500 was one for the ages, and while Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud won from pole, it was not a 200-lap parade. The Frenchman had to work. Yesterday he came to our office to talk about the race, and all the emotions he felt after.

One of the defining moments of the race was a red flag at lap 179, following a five-car crash caused by a collision between Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais. We imagined this was torture for Pagenaud, who was sitting in second behind Alexander Rossi when it was called. He said that wasn't the case—instead, he struggled with his emotions earlier in the race.

103rd Indianapolis 500
Clive RoseGetty Images

"Starting was not a problem, but all of a sudden I had some sort of emotion come up when I was leading," Pagenaud told us. "I was like 'Man, I'm leading the 500, I've got the best car, you know, this could happen,' and that's when I started having really fast breathing, heart rate went up, started having blurry vision.

"I really had to concentrate to get it back to the right level, keeping my emotions in check."

Pagenaud said the red flag was actually a good thing. "It was great because it allowed me to settle down, think about it all, think about how I was going to attack the last 15 laps," he said. "I basically planned a whole sequence of passing and trying to understand how he was stronger, or how I was stronger and beat [Rossi] to the line. So it helped me a bit mentally"

103rd Indianapolis 500
Chris GraythenGetty Images

Those last laps fighting with Rossi made this one of the most exciting Indy 500 finishes in recent memory. "When you have a great battle, it makes for a better race," Pagenaud said. "If it makes for a better race, you get more recognition. But you also have better memories for yourself.

"That will definitely be one of my best memories because my defense, my drive against him, played out to be almost perfect, right? I don't want to say perfect, because it's never perfect, but it was an awesome defense."

After holding off a charging Rossi, Pagenaud reveled in his hard-earned victory. "I did my slowdown lap and I cried," he said. "So I took my sweet time and then when I got to pit, I was like, 'Whoa, that's it?' I don't get to really enjoy it.

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IndyCar/Doug Mathews

"I saw the fans and I saw many people that were and they were all clapping, all standing up, and I'm like, 'Man, I can't go to victory lane without doing something for the fans,' so I stopped on the yard of bricks, and I celebrated with the fans. I didn't think it was going to take that long to go to victory lane, but it wasn't my fault."

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IndyCar/John Cote

He thought about doing celebratory donuts, too, but the gearing for Indy is too long, and he wasn't about to stall after winning the 500. Once he got to victory lane, everything got a little surreal.

"Roger [Penske] gave me the phone and he said, 'It's the president.' I'm like, 'Yeah right.' I'm like, but, it's Roger giving me the phone. He doesn't joke, so it's got to be the president," Pagenaud said. "He's like, 'It's the President, Mr. Trump!' I'm like, 'What?' So then I picked the phone up and then I was like, "Mr. Trump?" And he started talking and like, oh shit, it is the president."

For the record, French president Emmanuel Macron had yet to call Pagenaud as of yesterday afternoon.

The driver also took time to reflect more broadly on the experience of winning and what it means.

I'm not from a racing family. My family was not in racing, we had nobody in the family that was ever drove a race car. I started getting interested at four years old because of [Ayrton] Senna and [Alain] Prost. And then I remember vividly watching [Rick] Mears win the 500 at my grandpa's house. And that's when it really stuck with me. I dreamt about being a race car driver, I dreamt about going to the 500, I dreamt about going to Le Mans and when it happens, when you make your life dream become real, it's almost unreal. And it's so weird. I've always believed in my dreams, and most of my dreams I've made it true. So it's when it happens, it's the weirdest thing. It's just obviously happiest day of my life."
One of the first things I've been thinking about is Detroit and the championship. We're leading the championship, so I could get another one. And you set yourself challenges for what's next, right? But, it's also I can't wait to just sit down at home, review the race, read everything, and see what people thought of the race, and finally soak it in for myself. And you know, I've got to cry, I've got to cry at some point about it. That would be my way to soak it in and process it. It's been really hard to process, because it's such a big thing, but since you've dreamt it, and you've wanted it so bad, it's almost normal.

We also talked about the nature of the sport, and the focus on results. In motorsport, your recognition is tied to the results you achieve—no one remembers the best driver to never win the Indy 500. Now that Pagenaud has won the 500 and won the IndyCar championship (in 2016), he feels more liberated.

"I feel completely established in my industry. I feel like I'm going to be recognized for what I've done and I can now focus fully on my own performance before I focus on results," he said. "You can't perform 100 percent if you only think about the outcome, and that moment for me, the last lap of Indy 500, I never thought about the win. I was just thinking about doing.

"Those moments are the best moments in racing. And I want to feel that again. Again and again and again."

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IndyCar/Chris Owens
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