The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis started with a bang; two, in fact, when a stalled car at the standing start was struck by two other entrants. Pole-sitter Sebastian Saavedra sat helpless as his malfunctioning ride was hit by vehicles driven by Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Munoz, sending debris flying across the track and clipping the Grand Prix's honorary starter, Mayor Greg Ballard. (Ballard's injuries weren't serious.)
A later wreck knocked out Graham Rahal, who complained on camera to ESPN about the notion of a "restart zone," an area where the entire field of drivers can hit the gas as opposed to having the pack leader set the pace of acceleration. Rahal wasn't alone — other drivers griped about the way the zone causes a bunching of cars that makes for riskier transitions from yellow to green.
One man who had nary a beef on Saturday was Simon Pagenaud. The French driver, running the No. 77 IndyCar for Sam Schmidt's Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports team, used a finish-with-a-sip-of-fuel strategy to take the win. French drivers haven't had much success at Indy since the Speedway's inaugural seasons, and Pagenaud seems like he intends to make the most out his of heritage. Pagenaud's partnered with City Market's Three Days in Paris food stall to bring crepes to the gents and ladies working in the garages, and he's developed an impression of the flamboyant French NASCAR-driving Sacha Baron Cohen character in the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
NUVO spoke with Simon Pagenaud the day after his victory at Indy.
NUVO: How did you celebrate? There was a rumor you guys planned to party at Fogo de Chao or something?
Simon Pagenaud: Not yet, but we will. That's a tradition — that comes from Sam Schmidt. We're going to have wait and see if we have a rain day here and go as a team. Last night we had a quick party, celebrated, took pictures with the big trophy and that was pretty cool.
NUVO: That's got to be a heck of a feeling, especially winning at Indianapolis.
Pagenaud: It's obviously my dream to win the 500, but being the first to win the Grand Prix is very special. It's such an event — what a great way to start the month of May. It's really good for the guys, a good dynamic for the team, and I'm very, very proud.
NUVO: Those last couple of laps must have been nerve-wracking. You were extremely low on fuel — it looked like you were running on fumes when you crossed the yard of bricks.
Pagenaud: (Laughs) Yes! We were very low on fuel, but everyone with a similar strategy was in the same boat. It was a matter of trying to go as fast as possible with the fuel we had and I just focused on that. My hat is off to Honda. What an incredible engine — being able to go that fast and save that much fuel.
NUVO: With that many turns on a road course, the fuel can slosh around in the tank — were you noticing a diminishment in power on the corners?
Pagenaud: No, no, I didn't. It wasn't quite that close for us. A lot of cars actually ran out of fuel on the end lap. We ran out of fuel coming back to pit lane, so — I guess the car just wanted to go right to victory lane.
NUVO: I know several drivers were upset with the re-start zone. What were your thoughts?
Pagenaud: We can always complain about everything. At the end of the day, it was good racing. It was very packed up on re-starts and those cars have a lot of draft, so at the end of the straight, the nature of the track made it so we were three or four wide sometimes. But it's racing. There are ways to be smart about dealing with traffic. For us it was a good day. I have really nothing to complain about or bad to say — I think it was good racing, it was good for the show. I think it was a very entertaining race for the fans, and what a great way to start the Grand Prix.
NUVO: The initial start, the standing start was obviously troublesome.
Pagenaud: Yes, it was. It's a new thing in IndyCar, and it requires a lot of practice. Right now I think some teams understand better how to use the clutch — it's a hand clutch, it's not a foot clutch — it's a little different than what humans are used to! Also, there's a lot of electronics in those cars now — there's a lot of things we need to do, a very lengthy procedure that makes it difficult to meet [all the requirements] before the light goes off.
NUVO: How long did it take you to develop your impression of "Jean Girard" from Talladega Nights?
Pagenaud: That one's pretty easy. I don't have to force it too much.
NUVO: Who's your comic foil? Who's your Ricky Bobby?
Pagenaud: For sure, it's Will Power. He's my main rival. We've had some good races already, the Grand Prix included. I think this will be a common thing over the next few years.
NUVO: You've made this town your home now. What places do you like to haunt in Indy?
Pagenaud: I've been here for eight years now — I'm almost a Hoosier. I love sushi, so Kazan at 86th St. and Township Line is a favorite. I love restaurants — there's actually a lot of nice places near where I live on 86th Street.
NUVO: Are people starting to recognize your face yet?
Pagenaud: Yeah, it's happening a lot. If we were in France, people would actually get after me and kind of not respect my private life, but the funny thing here in Indy is people respect me very much. When they have a little bit of an opportunity, maybe at a dinner table, they just come by and say, "Hey, Simon, congrats," and that's it — then they go. They really respect my personal life.
NUVO: You're also the proud owner of a 65-pound trophy for the initial Grand Prix. Where's that thing going to live?
Pagenaud: I carried it only once, on the podium. That thing is heavy, but it's beautiful. Right now it's in my motor home; it'll be on a table there, proudly, for the month of May.
NUVO: The shift from road to oval's interesting at this course. Obviously, every turn is different on a road course, but I think a lot of casual fans don't understand how different Indy's four turns are when you're running the 500.
Pagenaud: Vastly different. You're travelling at 230 mph, and running near another car is like two fighter jets engaging. It requires a lot of experience, a lot of understanding. It's the only oval that seems like a road course, where you have to be really, really precise with your turning points. You feel the car sliding ... it's definitely a thrill, quite an adrenaline rush.
NUVO: It's unusual for a Frenchman to win a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I'd imagine you've gotten some response from your home country.
Pagenaud: It's been crazy. I haven't had time to answer all my messages yet. I had 87 text messages on the phone last night, and 112 emails, and it keeps coming. I really hope it brings the French media to the Indy 500. IndyCar is not shown in France, but I know the public would like to see it more. Maybe this will be the breaking point.