INDYCAR'S ZEN MASTER
Simon Pagenaud has long been known as one of the nicest guys in motor racing. The incredibly pleasant Frenchman wears a ready smile and usually found brimming with positivity, which makes his transformation into one of the fastest and most combative drivers in the IndyCar Series somewhat hard to reconcile.
It's easy to envision Pagenaud working himself into a Jekyll and Hyde routine — all lightness and warmth outside the car and pure fury inside his Honda-powered Schmidt Hamilton Racing entry — but as the 29-year-old revealed in a rather fascinating narrative to RACER after his maiden IndyCar win, he purposely avoids tapping into an aggressive alter ego, opting for a Zen-like approach to his life and his profession.
“I do a lot of meditation; I'm a thinker,” he said, as the strong smell of champagne from the podium wafted from his firesuit. “Meditation helps me to understand my body better, my mind, and control my emotions, control my vision, control where I want to be, what I want to feel. And if you want to feel the car oversteer, you're going to feel it oversteer; if you want to feel it understeer, you're going to feel it understeer. So it's about being numb to whatever is happening. But I go to the limit and push those limits away.
“And it's about dancing with the car. It's about finding the right point that makes the car rotate and it's inches precise. You are that close to the wall, you're close to the curb and you hustle through. This is what this control has helped me to achieve.”
Pagenaud was asked by his team to put in a series of blistering laps to open up a gap before he made his final pit stop—to make sure he'd come out ahead of James Jakes and Mike Conway — and used the skills gained from meditation to rise to the challenge.
“It was all the mental work I've been doing to get in the zone,” he continued. “I knew it was my time. I knew it was my time to go, and the car felt really good. And I just… I was in the zone. I just push, push, push, push. And it was like there was no limit.”
Having reached that incredibly rare mental state, Pagenaud kept exploring how far and how fast he could go.
“So I kept pushing, I kept pushing…I still couldn't find my limit.”
Not only did Pagenaud win his first IndyCar race on Sunday — and the first for the Schmidt team, but he also had a breakthrough in his ability to prolong that visit to an elevated level of consciousness.
“Yeah, I got there before but I couldn't stay for as long,” he admitted. “So I proved that. I was able to do a whole stint like that. I don't know if you can get in that moment every race. But the situation paid off really well. It was pretty amazing experience inside the car.”
Relaxed personalities can be hard to find at times in the IndyCar paddock, but among the men and women who work on pit lane, there's almost always a little bit of levity and sunshine to be found on the Schmidt Hamilton timing stand.
Credit Pagenaud's race engineer Ben Bretzman for some of that team-wide character (as well as team manager Rob Edwards), and with a deeper insight into Simon's outlook on life, the increasing success the two are finding in the IndyCar Series begins to make sense.
Bretzman, whose brother Eric serves as race engineer for two-time series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, also shares the same easy demeanor with his driver—a possible blueprint for what his younger brother and Pagenaud have struck upon since joining forces at Schmidt last year.
After taking a moment to reflect on what he'd just achieved on Sunday — the first win for Schmidt, but also his first win in the series -- Bretzman told RACER that being able to score a victory with his like-minded pilot and by following their own unique philosophy on life is what he cherishes most.
“This is really big for us; this is my first IndyCar win and it's was big for me, big for Simon because it's his first IndyCar win, but we, just as a team, we needed to show that, hey, we can do this. We can do this our way and our way can be successful. We knew it could, but without that win, there's always some degree of doubt.”
Bretzman and Pagenaud forged their bond in the ALMS in 2010 when they won the P1 title at Highcroft Racing and reunited at Schmidt last year where Simon placed fifth in the championship as a rookie.
The peaceful warriors know each other well enough to have complete faith in executing their respective duties, and for Bretzman, earning the win in Round 2 at Detroit came down to setting an almost impossible task for Pagenaud to achieve, but he did so with the foresight to understand his charge would deliver.
“Where we were with pit strategy, there were three different strategies in play today,” he explained. “All we needed was Simon to bang out some big laps on those last five or six laps before that final pit stop to make sure we got ahead of Dario.
“We asked him and he was a half a second faster than the field every lap. And he kept going faster and faster and faster. That was the key to winning. He's unbelievably talented. We both try as hard as we can. We have a lot of fun doing it and we push each other, for sure. He's a great driver. Period.”
And by joining his older sibling as a race-winning IndyCar engineer, the Bretzmans are now the only known set of brothers to hold that distinction.
“Eric was the first one to come down and congratulate me,” said Ben. “It was really cool to have him here. My dad is actually here too so it's kind of a family affair. What a great day for our family and for our team. You don't expect to get too many days like this one.”