INDIANAPOLIS – After a second place finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener at St. Pete, Simon Pagenaud is now setting his sights on winning for a second consecutive year on the streets of Long Beach. But, it’s not just the fact that Pagenaud won in Long Beach last year, it’s how he did it.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the longest running major “street” race held on the North American continent. It all started in 1975 and is still going today as the April 9 event will be the 43rd straight year the event was held. It’s the second longest annual event of the IndyCar season behind only the Indianapolis 500.
Despite those accolades, that’s not why last year’s win at Long Beach is so special to the Team Penske driver. Yes, winning at a prestigious event means a lot to him, but also he has other reasons as to why Long Beach holds such a special place in his big heart.
Pagenaud, has always been good at the 1.968-mile California street circuit. He’s won there in just about everything that he’s ever driven in. From sports cars to his Verizon IndyCar Series victory in the 2016 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it’s just a track that suits his driving style.
“Well it was my first Penske win,” Pagenaud said to me in an exclusive interview for Race Review Online regarding how special winning at Long Beach was last year. “For me, it’s always going to be very very special because as a racing driver, when you go and sign with Penske as a race driver, you’re always looking for that first victory.”
That’s one way to be sentimental about last year’s win. After all, he heard the noise about finishing 11th in the 2015 IndyCar points standings. He had three stellar years with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports from 2012-2014, reaching victory lane three times and finishing in the top five of the final standings in each, but the question was always there, what could he do in even better equipment?
In the offseason between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Pagenaud left SPM and signed with Team Penske. He finally reached the pinnacle of where he’s always dreamed to be at. It was now time to showcase his skills and show not just the IndyCar circle, but the fans around the U.S. and internationally as a whole who Simon Pagenaud is.
After two top five finishes in the first three races of that 2015 season, Pagenaud only had two more top fives over the remaining 13 races on the schedule. That unfortunately brought on that unfair noise. But, he quickly silenced them in 2016. I knew of his ability. I even wrote about it last year heading into the season. He was my pick to win the championship because it honestly does take a full season to really appreciate the resources and get used to a new team. Plus, Penske had never expanded to a four-car team before. They needed that adjustment season.
Pagenaud, finished second in the two straight races out of the gates in 2016 at St. Pete and Phoenix, then he found victory lane, and in all places, it was at Long Beach. It was the moment where it all came back full circle for Pagenaud.
“For me that was special but Long Beach also holds a very special place in my heart as well because that’s where I raced in America for the first time in 2006,” Pagenaud continued. I’ve won in Sports Cars and now I’ve won in IndyCar. I have a pretty good record there.”
As he said, Pagenaud, does indeed have a very good record at Long Beach. He’s made two Sports Cars starts there in 2009 and again in 2010. He won both. He made his American debut in Champ Car there in 2006, his first race on U.S. soil, he finished fourth. He also has had finishes of second, eighth, fifth and fourth respectively on the IndyCar side before his big win in 2016.”
All those are reasons to why he calls Long Beach “my favorite street course.” He said all those factors, mixed in with California being the place that his girlfriend Hailey McDermott is from, and you can see why the annual trip to Long Beach is one of Pagenaud’s favorite weekends out of the year.
“I also have a very special place in my heart for California being the state where Hailey (McDermott) was born in.”
With all that being said, how does he feel about his chances next month at Long Beach? After all, he’s qualified and raced well there in everything he’s race in, to go along with finishing second in the season opener at St. Pete?
“Long Beach is definitely one of my strong suits,” Pagenaud told me. “I know I need to bring my A-game to the table to score as many points as possible. It’s still early in the season but to me, it is very important to score a lot of points now. I’m expecting to be well placed but you can’t think about results. You can have to think about how to approach the weekend the right way. It starts with qualifying and trying to get the pole. The race is a different story. It is a track where you can pass and that’s awesome. It’s always a good show. You can qualify third and still win the race. That makes it exciting.”
Pagenaud is right, Long Beach does have some good braking zones for passing, but 24 of the last 30 winners of the race have come from the first two rows in the starting lineup. Does that make qualifying this year even more important, especially with how talented from top to bottom this field is?
“I think so,” said the Frenchman. “Obviously you can have strategies like at St. Pete that may work out like if you qualify in the back. But, statistically you’re best chance is if you qualify up front.”
Pagenaud said that qualifying at Long Beach is a “thrilling moment” and that a “qualifying lap at Long Beach is always on the edge.” He said he’s always “put a lot of attention on qualifying and obviously this year hopefully I can get the pole.”
At St. Pete though, a street course like Long Beach, Pagenaud qualified 14th. It wasn’t an ideal position to start the race in. But, pit strategy and his skill helped him get a runner-up finish. The good thing is, despite St. Pete and Long Beach being somewhat similar, two of his Penske teammates qualified in the Fast Six at St. Pete and that in turn has Pagenaud confident that he can join them up front at Long Beach.
“It was great to see Will get the pole actually at St. Pete. We knew Honda was strong but for Will to get the pole, it gave us confidence that we were right there with them. For me it was a good testament to our team that they did a great job over the winter and that we have great cars. I can’t wait for Long Beach to get to the qualifying round.”
To me, if I was a betting man, Pagenaud is the favorite to not just win the pole when we go to Long Beach in early April, but the favorite for the win as well.