Simon Pagenaud - Photo courtesy INDYCAR
The life of a successful racing driver has more twists and turns than a mid-day soap opera. Years of working through the ranks, sacrificing parents' incomes and time away from home are just part of the character-building exercises a driver takes on that climb to the top. Very few make it; many try.
Take, for instance the saga of Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who won the Atlantic Championship and rookie honors in the same year he arrived in the United States. Already an accomplished pilot in the lower European formula car ranks, Pagenaud wanted to make his way up the open wheel racing ladder and figured the USA was the right place to do so.
The following year he stayed with Walker Racing and joined current IZOD IndyCar Series star Will Power at Team Australia. Together they learned the ropes in Champ Car and looked to have opportunities to challenge one another on some of the great American road courses Champ Car visited. But the money for Team Australia went away and Champ Car folded.
Pagenaud was fortunate to hook up for endurance races with Peugeot Total Sport, which won Le Mans in 2009. He also landed with Gil de Ferran's American Le Mans Series team and had the opportunity to race Honda Performance Development's LM P2 Acura sports car. Last year, Pagenaud was part of the winning Highcroft Racing LM P1 (actually, ALMS grouped all prototypes together for the 2010 season) racer; he also raced with Peugeot at The Sarthe circuit in Le Mans.
Again, things took a twist when HIghcroft lost much of its backing and was able to guarantee only the first race of the 2011 season, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. Pagenaud, together with teammates David Brabham (with whom he shared the 2010 championship) and Marino Franchitti took a brand new HPD ARX.01e to second place overall after only a week's worth of time on the car. It was brand new for the race; only minor testing at the Sebring track ensued for the team.
What next? Pagenaud expressed his desire, all along, to get back into open wheel competition. An opportunity arose following the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, where both Dreyer & Reinbold drivers suffered broken wrists in various incidents on the street/airport circuit.
Although Justin Wilson was able to compete at the second race on the undulating Barber Motorsports Park road course in Alabama, rookie Ana Beatriz had to sit that one out, allowing Pagenaud the chance he was looking for.
Following a slow and studied start in practice and qualifying, Pagenaud found his wings in the race, kept his nose clean and finished eighth overall (from 23rd on the 26-car grid). At the close, he was threatening three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves for seventh.
"It was good fun out there, excellent racing," said Pagenaud. "Chasing Helio at the end was something that I really enjoyed. The team did a fantastic job and gave me the opportunity to showcase what I can do."
There were challenges to this one-off ride: "I had to get used to the restarts, but we had so many so there was plenty of opportunity to practice. I worked out how to pick off some positions after a while, but I didn't want to be too aggressive on the initial start because we were so far back on the grid. There was no reason to be silly.
"The car was really good at the end of the race; I was able to turn really fast laps and keep on Helio's tail," Pagenaud laughed.
While Beatriz has been cleared to return to competition this weekend for the 37th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Simon Pagenaud will be on-site to keep tabs on the Dreyer & Reinbold team and any opportunities he might be able to seize for future IndyCar Series rides.
Driving in sportscar racing has definitely helped him. "When you have to work your way through sportscar traffic (with different classes) you learn different ways of getting around people. From the technical side of things, I also have learned a tremendous amount developing new cars for Honda Performance Development in the US and Peugeot in Europe. That knowledge on set-up will prove very beneficial in IndyCar."
Highcroft team owner Duncan Dayton is also interested in pursuing IndyCar Series competition and Pagenaud would love to be part of that program. "If they were to come across, I would love to be part of the package," Pagenaud said. "We had a lot of success together with the ALMS championship last year and had brilliant result with second overall at Sebring this year. I'm very hopeful of doing a few more IndyCar races this year alongside some more ALMS events for Honda Performance Development as well - that would be a great combination."
© 2011 Anne Proffit