Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi return to Indy to celebrate epic battle
They re-created one of the most thrilling finishes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history by driving inches apart across the famous Yard of Bricks.
They also recounted the epic battle while sitting 6 feet apart (properly social distanced) and having to don masks during a shoot at the track’s iconic Pagoda.
For Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi, two Indianapolis 500 winners whose connection is both intensely fierce and extraordinarily friendly, it was one of many moments of juxtaposition while filming “Back Home Again,” the special hosted by Mike Tirico that will showcase their stirring battle last year.
‘BACK HOME AGAIN’: Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, NBC
“It was awesome to be back there in a race car,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “It didn’t feel like we were in this weird void of nothingness anymore. It felt like things were back to normal at least for a couple of laps.”
Said Pagenaud: “It’s a bizarre time, but we managed to get some amazing footage.”
The program, which also will honor the race’s military traditions as well as health-care workers battling the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), will air Sunday on NBC at 2 p.m. ET during the original time slot of the 104th running of the Indy 500 (which has been postponed to Aug. 23 because of the pandemic).
Reliving the 2019 Indy 500 through exclusive commentary on the race replay and an interview with Tirico, the winner and runner-up from the 2019 race alternated between images that were both comfortably familiar and strikingly odd.
“From a visual standpoint, it’s very impactful to see that (the track) was just empty,” Rossi, who won the race in his 2016 debut, said. “The fact that it was the middle of May, and there were Indy cars on the track, and there were maybe 20 people there, was really surreal and a very unique experience.
“It’s a sad story as to how we got to this point, but from a drama perspective, the whole point of this special is capturing how 2020 is going to be very different than years in the past. It’s tied to the legacy of this race and the importance of the fans and the community that make it what it is.
“As a racetrack and an event by itself, it’s awesome, larger than life. But you really miss a really key element when there’s not people there. I think that was all too clear when we were there and just a reminder of how important the fans are to our sport. And to the Indy 500 in particular.”
Pagenaud, the Frenchman who became a popular first-time winner from the pole position of last year’s Indy 500, also would have preferred a full grandstand “but we’re doing the best we can to represent our sport and give something to the fans.” During the COVID-19 era, that required necessary adjustments for sanitary precautions.
“We were wearing masks, and everybody was,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com with a laugh. “Obviously, it’s not easy to understand the commands, especially for me, when people are wearing masks. So it is an adjustment, but we’re all getting used to the situation. The thing I’m really proud about is how IndyCar is reacting to it, being so proactive with NBC Sports. As partners, we’re able to showcase our sport, and that’s amazing to me in these times. I’m very proud to be part of it.
“Mike Tirico obviously is a really good host. And with Rossi, we have such respect with each other that we’re able to talk about things we never had the opportunity to before, so that was a really good time.”
It also was a fun return trip because the 2016 IndyCar champion had gone nearly a year since setting foot at IMS (which since has been purchased by his team owner, Roger Penske). The highlight was getting behind the wheel of his bright yellow No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet to turn laps with Rossi.
“The filming on the track was awesome,” Pagenaud said. “Alex and I were inches apart trying to give the best footage we could. The camera was inches away from the nose of my car sometimes.”
Rossi joked that his No. 28 Dallara-Honda wasn’t quite close enough.
“It was annoying because in a lot of the camera shots, my car was behind the 22,” he laughed. “I didn’t love that as much as Simon probably did. But yeah man, it was cool to not only be in a car, but then to hear the other noise of the car and to have a small little bit of slipstream going on. I think some of the shots that we got required a little bit of some dancing and precision, so I’ll be interested to see how they turn out.
“From the inside, it looked pretty awesome.”
Despite engaging in such a rousing duel on Indy’s largest stage (trading the lead five times in the last 14 laps), it would seem odd to describe Pagenaud and Rossi as a rivalry. Their friendship features healthy respect that often crosses into admiration.
During a replay of the Indy 500 on NBCSN’s “Racing Week in America” last month, they live-tweeted the race and traded congratulatory musings that revealed a deeper level to a relationship that sprouted when they were teamed on Penske’s Acura sports car program for the Rolex 24 the past two years.
Both agree that the 2019 Indy 500 finish strengthened that bond. Rossi is an introverted sort who doesn’t socialize much but makes an exception for Pagenaud.
“I don’t go out of my way to spend extra amounts of time with people at the racetrack, except for my very close friends and teammates at Andretti,” Rossi said. “But Simon always was kind of an outlier from that standpoint. I always was happy to talk to him and just share in experiences and opinions, whether good or bad, with what was going on from a current events standpoint.
“I think he’s a great guy. There’s probably more to that. I really enjoy racing with him on the track but also the opportunities here and there to have conversations with him away from the track.”
Pagenaud, who is more outgoing, appreciates Rossi’s simplicity when it comes to a love of racing.
“I think he’s very reserved, but he’s got a very strong fire inside that’s boiling and ready to go at anytime when he sits in a race car,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very interesting to see. I think he’s most comfortable in his race car. And he’s a true racer, whether whether Baja off-road, or sports car racing, V8 Supercars or IndyCar.
“He’s able to compete in all these different categories, which is fun to watch. He’s an old-school kind of guy caring more about driving than anything else.”
Though they have a tenacity to how they fight for positions (Pagenaud describes them as a couple of Jack Russell terriers), there is a dichotomy to their driving approach.
“It’s almost they are very similar in style but different,” three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is teamed with both as an IMSA driver for Acura Team Penske, told NBCSports.com. “Simon is very detailed in his comments. Rossi also has great comments, but it’s more, ‘Just give me the car and I’ll drive.’ Very straightforward. But on the racetrack, they look very similar and close to each other, and that’s why they finished first and second last year.”
Castroneves was singled out by Rossi as one of the only drivers who is similar to his unorthodox style for IndyCar.
“There’s not many people who drive a car like I do,” chuckles Rossi, who prefers a looser rear end that often can mean dazzling displays of catching his car while oversteering through the corners.
Pagenaud, on the other hand, likes “a very positive” front end.
Having won multiple times in the NTT Series last season, both make it work.
“From a sheer internal competitive standpoint, I think Simon and I are probably close to the top from that standpoint,” Rossi said. “Where Simon is so impressive is his ability to articulate really small details. We can often have on the same feedback on a lot of things that go on throughout a race or qualifying lap, but he really differentiates himself with this minute level of detail. So that’s impressive to watch, and I think I’ve learned some things from him from that standpoint.”
Pagenaud said he’s picked up things from Rossi’s often mesmerizing performances, such as last year’s comeback from a slow pit stop for fueling problems at the Brickyard.
“He’s relentless; I love the way he drives,” Pagenaud said. “His car control is something I admire. I always inspire myself from my competition. Certainly I think Alex has qualities that I don’t have, so I try to emulate what I don’t have and try to understand how I can get better by embracing what they’re doing. I think Rossi and I are very different styles, but we have the same driving side.
“He seems a lot more aggressive than I am. I’m more like the stealthy one that’s just going to be under cover even though my car is really bright. All of a sudden I pop up front, and people don’t know where I come from. Rossi is one of those guys that you know is going to do something spectacular, so you want to watch it. I’m not the same, but my consistency has brought me championships and a lot of very good wins.”
"Bunch of hungry, angry cars behind me... little do they know I'm ANGRIER."— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 19, 2020
Don't miss the Indy 500 Special: Back Home Again, featuring analysis and never-before-seen content at @IMS with @AlexanderRossi and @SimonPagenaud. Sunday at 2PM ET on @NBC. #500AtHome pic.twitter.com/ketwEyiyoZ
With 14 wins and a series title over 138 starts and eight full seasons in IndyCar, Pagenaud, who turned 36 on Monday, has been around twice as long as the 28-year-old Rossi (seven wins in 67 over four seasons).
But in taping “Back Home Again,” Pagenaud said he had witnessed growth in Rossi as “a very good ambassador of the sport. I feel like he sometimes hides that because he can seem so shy. But actually I learned a lot from him when we did that filming because the way he expressed his first win at Indy was spectacular.”
Like their driving approaches, there were both parallels and striking contrasts to their Indy 500 wins, which came four years apart with different circumstances and meanings.
Pagenaud had dreamed since childhood about becoming the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 in nearly 100 years, and he celebrated with a victory tour of his home country.
Rossi was thrust into the spotlight much more abruptly as a rookie who won with a brilliant and perfectly executed fuel strategy in the 100th running of the race in 2016.
At the time, the Andretti Autosport driver only recently had left behind a longtime goal of becoming a star in Formula One, and with little oval experience, his IndyCar future didn’t seem certain.
He since has become a series fixture, re-signing a long-term deal last year with Andretti and Honda after a few months of being courted as the most coveted free agent (including being mentioned as a Penske candidate in place of Pagenaud, who re-signed with Penske after his Indy win).
The love affair with Indy bloomed in his unexpected victory.
“Like Simon, I was blown away that I was in this position as an Indy 500 winner, but it wasn’t for the same reasons,” Rossi said. “His reasons were because of all the time it took and the dream, the desire, the effort and the failed attempts, etc. But for me, the fact I couldn’t believe it was because I didn’t ever imagine that a) I’d be participating in the Indy 500, but b) it didn’t even occur to me going into it that (winning) was even a remote possibility.”
The laid-back Californian took some criticism for a subdued victory celebration.
“When I got to the Victory Circle, I had no idea how to react,” Rossi said. “Because there wasn’t that thought process that went into it of, ‘Oh, this time that I win, I’m going to do this and feel that, and it’s going to be this culmination of all these years of finally coming through.’ It was like, “What the hell? What just happened? How did that happen? Why did that happen?” sort of reaction.
“So I think that was misinterpreted by a lot of people as a non-appreciation for it. I guess you could say that, but it wasn’t a non-appreciation for it because I wasn’t appreciative of the event or what the event meant. It was because I do not feel deserving to be in that position.”
“That was a surprise to see how many of my peers came to congratulate me,” he said. “I’m certainly one of the fiercest competitors out there, and it’s not like we’re old best friends, but there’s such respect. I really felt full inside when I realized the respect that I had from so many other competitors. So that was amazing.
“I think that’s the key in IndyCar racing. You have to look at the others to improve, and I think that’s why there’s such respect. Obviously at the speedway, it’s the fastest race in the world, so there is a need for respect that all the drivers have.”
Just being included in “Back Home Again” made Rossi feel respected.
“Obviously the 500 really ultimately rewards the winner,” he said. “So to be able to be a part of the special during these crazy times hopefully provides something fans can really be excited about with a memorable look back on last year that was really cool.”