Let’s face it—American motorsports fans aren’t always kind to the French. When the makers of “Talladega Nights” needed a foil for Ricky Bobby, they created Jean Girard—a Perrier sponsored, espresso-sipping Frenchman who was married to another man. This was a time when “Freedom Fries” were still a thing.
Sebastien Bourdais is very French, and as good a driver as the sport has produced. But Bourdais displays a strong strain of sardonic French nihilism that clashes with Americans’ vision of themselves as can-do optimists, and they only really started to cautiously embrace him when he bounced back quickly from smashing his pelvis against the wall in a balls-out, hopelessly trimmed shot at the 2017 Indy pole. There’s still no bromance here amongst the casual fans.
Then there is Simon Pagenaud. As the 2019 Indianapolis 500 was restarting after a late race red flag this past Sunday, Speedway announcer Dave Calabro solicited cheers from the fans regarding their favorites amongst the top runners. And while nobody polled as high as Indy’s own Ed Carpenter, Pagenaud was right up there with 100th Indy winner—and American—Alexander Rossi.
Pagenaud drives the Menards car—an electrifying fluorescent yellow scheme that has represented the Midwestern-based hardware and lumber megastore chain since the 1980s. With popular drivers like the late Scott Brayton and Gary Bettenhausen behind the wheel, the Menards cars have always been popular with Indy fans. So is it the car or the driver that elicits cheers?
Pagenaud is considerably more effusive than the thoughtful Bourdais. He’s quick to smile and quick to respond to a verbal challenge—displaying traits that Americans think of as “American.”
He’s also been quick all this May. He used his wet driving skills to savagely subdue the field in the last stint of the rainy IndyCar GP, passing Scott Dixon for the lead in the final two laps. He then slipped ahead of the Ed Carpenter racing team of Carpenter, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones in 500 qualifying for pole and prevented an all-ECR front row. He had the Menards yellow Dallara Chevy in front on Sunday for 116 laps, including the one where they wave the checkered flag.
The win followed an aggressive, high stakes battle with Rossi, and netted Pagenaud and the Penske Racing team a cool $2,669,529 from an overall purse of $13,090,536 for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500—Pagenaud’s first win of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” 2016 IndyCar champion Pagenaud beat Rossi to the finish by .2086 of a second to score the record-extending 18th Indianapolis 500 victory for Team Penske—the first pole sitter to win the 500 since Helio Castroneves (also driving for Penske) in 2009.
Pagenaud and Rossi swapped the lead five times in the closing laps, the last when Pagenaud roared past Rossi’s Honda heading into Turn 3 on the 199th of 200 laps around the 2.5-mile oval. “We were flat in that final lap coming to the flag—we just didn’t have enough horsepower,” Rossi said. “You can’t take anything away from the (No.) 22 guys. They were on pole, they led a lot of laps, did a good job and had a fast race car.”
“It’s amazing. It’s another dream come true, and the biggest dream of my life come true,” said Pagenaud, the 35-year-old native of Montmorillon, France. “It’s hard to fathom, really. It’s really hard to process it right now, but I’m just filled with a lot of joy.”
Pagenaud became the first driver to win more than one IndyCar Series race this season and second Penske pilot to win both IMS races in the same year—following Will Power in 2018.
“It’s hard to believe right now, to be honest with you,” said Pagenaud. “It’s been such an intense race. I believe we led most of the race. The car was just on rails. The yellows came out perfectly. The stars are aligned. Man, wow, I’m seeing myself on TV with this. I’m just speechless. It’s just incredible.
“I thought we had the best car. We consumed a lot of fuel by being up front all day. (Engineer) Kyle Moyer told me to let Josef (Newgarden) go by in one of the last stints to see if I can save fuel. That was the key of the race for us. We saved so much fuel trailing Josef there, and I could follow him easily, as well. It was the best car I’ve ever driven on an oval. No weaknesses. I was so spirited today. It was my time.”
Rossi, from Nevada City, California, earned $759,179. He led five times for 22 laps, continuing his streak of leading in all four of his career “500” starts. “I think (our) NAPA car was superior if you look at what we were able to do in traffic,” said Rossi. “I don’t think anyone else was doing that. It’s really disappointing. I thought there was a period of time there where we were going to get the win.”
2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato earned $540,454 for finishing third in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda. Sato recovered from pit-stop issues of his own, going down a lap early before recovering to finish third Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It was his second top-10 finish in his 10th Indianapolis 500.
“My race, (at) one stage it looked really tough,” Sato said. “We got some little issues after the first pit stop, so we had to come back. I think it’s still great result to the team, especially considering we were a lap down in 31st. I think it was great.”
2017 IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden earned $462,904 for finishing fourth in the No. 2 Shell V-Power Nitro Plus Team Penske Chevrolet. “We just fell out of position with 10 to go,” said Newgarden. “Sato got by me, and that hurt us. We needed to be in that top three. Really, the top two is where you had to be. That was the catbird seat for trying to win the race.
“It stinks, but we’ll learn from it and we’ll come back better next year. It was a game of patience today. We were saving fuel, trying to work on our car. We were lacking something at the beginning. I think we got the car a lot better toward the end. It was just a little off. It’s been consistent all weekend. It’s been great having the Shell V-Power car this year. Chevy did a great job.
“Rossi and Simon really did a great job of defending there. They were methodical. That’s the style of this race. One of us winning is what The Captain (Roger Penske) wants. They do such a great job. It’s great to reward the whole group with a victory. Congrats to Simon. It’s still not a bad day, but it hurts a bit when you fall short.”
Rounding out the top five was 2018 winner and 2014 series champion Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet, who earned $444,554. Team Penske placed three cars in the top five.
Santino Ferrucci earned $435,404 for his seventh-place finish after starting 23rd in the No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda, including $50,000 for being named Rookie of the Year. Ferrucci, who led one lap, was the highest-finishing rookie among the six drivers making their first Indianapolis 500 starts this year.
Here’s an interview with Santino before the race. We talk New Haven pizza, motorcycle drag racing, and whatnot:
As for Bourdais, his race ended up on the wall after a turn 3 tangle with Graham Rahal. “I didn’t think he had as much of the car as he did inside,” Bourdais said about the contact. “It’s always a dynamic thing. He got a run, and then he kind of stalled there for a little while. And then I was there at turn-in. We made contact before we even got there. That’s what set off the whole thing because it kind of got the car wiggly a little bit before turn in.”
“I just got a killer run, and I was lifting to just manage my gap,” said Rahal. “You pull out, and you get to this point, and you can see him squeezing me inside, turns into me, and nothing you can do.
“As all of us know, with 20 to go, 22 to go, it’s the time. You have to give every opportunity to go for it. I think Sebastien knows that, which is probably why he hasn’t said much to me. But, yeah, it was disappointing. The United Rentals car was just heating up. It seemed like Alex (Rossi) and I were the only two who were really able to pass there at the end. I was feeling good about things. Hadn’t changed much, just trying to march to the front. I’m just very disappointed. It’s another year you get to sit and think about this. I respect Sebastien a lot. I don’t respect that move. I do respect him as a driver tremendously, and I’m sure he feels the same right now. At those speeds, that’s how you kill somebody. And I’m just not a fan of squeezing people and putting people in those positions. It’s not necessary.”
“It’s always easy to say I should have given up going into the corner,” said Bourdais. “But at that point when you have to make the call whether you’re going to jump on the brakes and let the guy fly in because I didn’t really feel like the side by side was an option. I didn’t really want to pay the price to see what was going to happen there. It started to be in a bit of marbles, and I didn’t really feel like that was an option. I thought he was going to back off, and we were going to be OK. It’s that stage of the race where nobody wants to give up. It’s just bad timing.”
The Bourdais/Rahal crash also collected Felix Rosenqvist and Zac Veach. “The first thing I could see was the 60 car (Jack Harvey) going really slow on the inside,” said Rosenqvist. “He had just come out of the pits. I managed to get around, and I just tried to stop. It was kind of just a pack-up of a lot of cars spinning and smoke and grass on the track. I tried to go on the outside, and it didn’t work out.
“I kind of wish I would have seen earlier what was about to happen, but it was an unfortunate situation to be in. It was a shame. We had a really, really good car today. The NTT Honda guys did a brilliant job today, coming from the back up to the top 10. I’m really sad for the guys. I thought we deserved a top 10 today.”
“I think that was the biggest hit I have ever had on an oval,” said Veach. “My knee came up and hit the steering wheel where I backed in. It is unfortunate. The Gainbridge car was so good. It was one of the best cars I have ever had. We went from 28th to 12th or 13th at that time. We were well on our way with the final pit stop to be an easy top 10 for us.
“I hated it for the team; they did an incredible job. I hate it for the people supporting me. I hate it for my friend, (Felix) Rosenqvist, too. We both started 28th and 29th, then were running 11th and 12th when our races ended at the same time. It’s tough. Hopefully, we can come back and have a little more luck on our side next year.”
Here’s video of the crash. The last clip is Ferrucci gassing through the grass past the wreck:
With cars, debris and fluids spread complete across the track, the race was red flagged. “The red flag made no difference for us,” said Pagenaud. “The yellows equaled it out for everyone. It would’ve made it easier on fuel. Being aggressive for us made the difference today, and we attacked the whole race, and we got it. The Menards Chevy was so fast all day, and we did it. The team made no mistakes. Great stops all day. Everything worked out perfect.”
Reports are that Pagenaud’s spirited and successful May have saved his ride with Penske, and probably the Menards sponsorship as well. “Did questions about your job security motivate you?” Pagenaud was asked.
“It didn’t. I’m just focused on the job, man. When you have a car like this, a team like this, you just work your way. It’s all about achieving and executing at the end, and we did execute perfectly today. No mistakes. Here we are, Victory Lane, man. We did it!
“I’m so proud of my flag and country. Happiness. After the Notre Dame tragedy, the French people needed something like this. And I’m so glad I can do that for them. I’m proud to be French and proud for the support from everyone here in America.
“I never expected to be in this position, but I certainly was trying to make it as hard as I could. I want to thank the fans. The fans are amazing. It was awesome to share that with you guys on the Yard of Bricks. You’re the best, Indianapolis.”
So—is it the Frenchman or the Menards car? We may never know for sure, but I’ll let you know the crowd response from the north end of the Speedway during the 104th running in 2020. I can tell you in advance, almost everybody loves a winner.
Results Sunday of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 200, Running
2. (9) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 200, Running
3. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 200, Running
4. (8) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 200, Running
5. (6) Will Power, Chevrolet, 200, Running
6. (2) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 200, Running
7. (23) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 200, Running
8. (22) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 200, Running
9. (16) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 200, Running
10. (11) Conor Daly, Honda, 200, Running
11. (32) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 200, Running
12. (15) James Davison, Honda, 200, Running
13. (4) Ed Jones, Chevrolet, 200, Running
14. (3) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 200, Running
15. (24) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 200, Running
16. (30) Pippa Mann, Chevrolet, 200, Running
17. (18) Scott Dixon, Honda, 200, Running
18. (12) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 199, Running
19. (31) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 199, Running
20. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 199, Running
21. (25) Jack Harvey, Honda, 199, Running
22. (19) Oriol Servia, Honda, 199, Running
23. (13) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 198, Running
24. (26) Jordan King, Honda, 198, Running
25. (20) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 196, Running
26. (10) Marco Andretti, Honda, 195, Running
27. (17) Graham Rahal, Honda, 176, Contact
28. (29) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 176, Contact
29. (28) Zach Veach, Honda, 176, Contact
30. (7) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 176, Contact
31. (33) Kyle Kaiser, Chevrolet, 71, Contact
32. (27) Ben Hanley, Chevrolet, 54, Mechanical
33. (5) Colton Herta, Honda, 3, Mechanical
Winner’s average speed: 175.794 mph
Time of Race: 2:50:39.2797
Margin of victory: 0.2086 of a second
Cautions: 4 for 29 laps
Lead changes: 29 among 10 drivers
Lap Leaders: Pagenaud, Simon 1-31; Power, Will 32-34; Carpenter, Ed 35; Sato, Takuma 36-37; Rosenqvist, Felix 38-41; Pagenaud, Simon 42-63; Carpenter, Ed 64-66; Power, Will 67; Rossi, Alexander 68-69; Dixon, Scott 70-72; Pagenaud, Simon 73-98; Carpenter, Ed 99-100; Newgarden, Josef 101; Rossi, Alexander 102-105; Dixon, Scott 106-110; Rosenqvist, Felix 111-112; Pagenaud, Simon 113-128; Rossi, Alexander 129-137; Dixon, Scott 138-142; Pagenaud, Simon 143-150; Newgarden, Josef 151-170; Carpenter, Ed 171; Ferrucci, Santino 172; Power, Will 173-175; Sato, Takuma 176; Pigot, Spencer 177-180; Rossi, Alexander 181-186; Pagenaud, Simon 187-197; Rossi, Alexander 198; Pagenaud, Simon 199-200
NTT IndyCar Series point standings:
Pagenaud 250, Newgarden 249, Rossi 228, Dixon 203, Sato 203, Power 184, Hunter-Reay 157, Hinchcliffe 145, Pigot 133, Ferrucci 129.
story and photos by Tim Hailey with help from IndyCar