Rookie of the year just the beginning for Pagenaud

Things didn't go well for Frenchman Simon Pagenaud in his first race. But that didn't stop him. And though he could find similarities to that first outing last weekend, he clinched The IZOD IndyCar Series' Rookie of the Year award at the Grand Prix of Sonoma.

He is hoping for more big things in Sunday's Grand Prix of Baltimore. He qualified 12th Saturday, and will start 11th, moving up a position after No. 2 qualifier Mike Conway serves a 10-place penalty for an unapproved engine change.


"My first race was in Go-Karts at age 10," Pagenaud said. "That definitely was one of the biggest moments of my life. I had all the feelings, all the emotions."

You won?


"No, I actually finished last," he said in his French accent that he compared to Formula One driver Jean Girard's in the Will Ferrell movie "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." "But the emotion. It was a tough race. It created the base for the sport in me."

At least it was a beautiful day and you had a wonderful time, right?

"No. It was really terrible day," he said. "It was raining, cats and dogs. I couldn't control my Go-Kart. The toughest conditions. My engine was the wrong engine for a Go-Kart. It was dark. I couldn't see. I had most everything going wrong."

Pagenaud paused, remembering.

"It was fantastic!" he said. "You know at 10, when it is like that, you feel ridiculous, like you don't belong and you want to give it up. But then, I thought, 'I survived.' And you see, here I am."

Here he is, coming to the Grand Prix of Baltimore as the Sunoco Rookie of the Year and in fifth place in the points race. He is still mathematically in the running for the overall title, but he is 85 points behind leader Will Power. Last week, Pagenaud finished seventh to wrap up the rookie title with two races left in the season.

Pagenaud, 28, could see a similarity to his first race.

"It was a pretty eventful race," he said. "It seems like I was always behind the car that got spun. We had contact early, damaged the front wing and had to replace it. And then, in the end, got boxed in and couldn't get the top four position I was hoping for.

"It was a crazy race for us."

But crazy has been Pagenaud's normal.

He was all but out of racing in 2005, when he promised his dad if he didn't win a $2 million Atlantic Series scholarship to go Champ Car racing he'd give up his career. He came to the United States, won the prize in 2006 and drove for Team Australia in the Champ Car World Series the next year.

"He was my teammate," Power said. "Actually, we raced each other in 2005 in Europe. But in 2007 we were on Team Australia. He has a lot of experience now. He's very quick and I knew no one would beat him for the rookie title."


Power suspects Pagenaud would have moved up to IndyCars before now, except after 2008 Pagenaud went to the American Le Mans Series when Power headed to IndyCars.

"He's a sharp character, very analytical," Power said. "He has such potential. I very much think he could be a future champion in our series."

But if Pagenaud hadn't won that Atlantic Series title, he said, his career path would have likely followed that of his father, who has owned a Leclerc supermarket since he was 24, and his grandfather, who was a pioneer in food distribution.

"I was interested in their business," he said. "But I'm still a competitor. It's what drives me. And cars, even when I was young, I could see it's where I was meant to be. I just needed to perfect my driving style and skills. It's where I belong."

Pagenaud finished second in ALMS points with de Ferran Motorsports in 2009. In 2010 and 2011 he drove for Patron Highcroft Racing, before getting his chance this year with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports.

This season, despite never having driven an oval and having not raced at most of the tracks in the series, including Baltimore, Pagenaud said he still set winning the championship as one of his goals.

"I'm very focused on the overall championship," Pagenaud said. "Being in [fifth] place is fantastic for the first year, but I think we could be a little bit better. And I would like a better position by the time I leave Baltimore. We need to do something big for the championship."

He probably wasn't thinking about putting his race car in flight as he did Friday morning, when all four wheels left the track as the car crossed the light-rail tracks on Pratt St. in only his second lap on the Baltimore track. Or brushing the wall Saturday during qualifying.

Pagenaud, no doubt, wants big results in the race, but the Frenchman has a nice sense of humor and doesn't seem to miss any opportunity to have a little fun. Friday he was making jokes about his car taking flight and a few weeks ago at Mid-Ohio he showed up with one red and one green shoe after working in a program designed to help teens drive safely.

"There was a girl, she was very tense and was confused with the throttle and the brakes," he said. "I could see she was stressed and I was trying to think of something simple to help her. I told her to just remember right is go and left is stop. I told her it would help her to react more quickly. And then, I was getting dressed to come to the race and I saw my shoes and thought, why not? I don't have trouble, but I thought it would be something different. It worked pretty well."

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