Simon Pagenaud is no stranger to racing with vehicular adversity.
In the 2000s, the Frenchman spent an entire sports car racing stint at the circuit formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park in Utah — wheeling a rocket-fast De Ferran Motorsports Acura prototype — with what he thought was a performance part hidden in the oddest of locations. Feeling a probing sensation within his undercarriage, Pagenaud figured it was a new top secret component that was installed before the race and dealt with the discomfort in his backside.
It was only a revelation a little while later as he battled with the factory Audis and Penske Porsche RS Spyders and learned that he lacked radio communications where the secret go-fast part was revealed to be radio connector which got wedged between his seat and posterior while strapping into the car.
Last Sunday’s Nashville Grand Prix provided Pagenaud with another story to tell after a to run to ninth place in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda was wholly unexpected after something broke at the back of his Indy car.
“It was just before our first stop,” the 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion told RACER. “It was really bad. It felt like the driveshaft maybe broke and it was coming out of the socket that connects it to the gearbox, or something like that. Up to that point I was making really good progress on new tires and was hanging with Josef , Power was behind me, and we were going through the field.
“Then all of a sudden something in the back is happening and I thought the race was over, because it was pretty drastic. I’ve actually never experienced a feeling like that. I’m like, ‘Man, something’s broken, we’re done.’ And then we’re right in the window to pit so Shank’s like, ‘Just come in, we’ll see if we can fix it.’”
Running seventh at the time, Pagenaud pitted on lap 19 and traded his alternate tires for used primaries; his MSR mechanics could not find an obvious issue at the back of the machine and sent him on his way. He was fortunate when a caution period arrived on lap 22 and as most of the field made their first pit stops, the No. 60 was promoted to second.
After more cautions were required, the return to proper racing on lap 41 saw Pagenaud surrender position after position as the No. 60 struggled to put more than 700hp to the ground and carry the same speed through most of the corners as his rivals.
“I thought it was gonna break at some point because to me, it felt like the whole rear axle was just misfiring, basically, if I can explain it that way,” Pagenaud continued. “But we kept having these yellows so I had some time to myself to just understand the situation. We restart right behind Palou and I figure I might as well try everything to at least get into the lead and go out with a bang.
“And this whole time, I’m on the radio with Shank trying to come up with ideas. I tried to use the power differently, doing different gears in some places, but it didn’t work. The only thing I found was that if I released the steering quicker from the corner to exit, the straighter I was, the better I was doing, so that was the best adaptation I found: Do everything I could to be straight as early as I could out of the corners, and lap time started coming back.”
What Pagenaud and the MSR team didn’t know is something had failed internally with the left-rear damper. On one side, Nashville’s layout with mostly left turns helped Pagenaud since the right-rear tire and damper do most of the work each lap, but on the flipside, the two corners leading onto the longest straights — onto the bridge — are right-handers, meaning the broken side of the No. 60 Honda should have cost its driver a lot of speed.
“What was so weird was actually those two corners were the best for me!” Pagenaud exclaimed. “That’s why I couldn’t really figure out what was happening because Turn 3 and Turn 8 were the least of my issues. Even braking for Turn 4 was not terrible; wasn’t great but wasn’t terrible. So that’s why everything was telling me was it was not a shock and more like a mechanical issue in the drivetrain. It should not have worked better there because that side wasn’t really being controlled any longer, but maybe being broken gave me better runs onto the bridge somehow. Totally confused me.
“The worst was Turn 7 because the back of the car was hopping laterally onto the track. I lost a couple positions there because I couldn’t accelerate, so I was sitting there, just waiting for the power to go down, and then all of a sudden, it would hook and go. The rear would just kick out without telling me in the corners. It was one of those survival drives.”
Waiting for something to snap and end his day, with the back of his car bucking over crests and spinning the left-rear tire at inopportune times, Pagenaud credits his co-team owner for keeping his head in the race and pressing on to a surprise top-10 finish.
“You know what worked? It was funny, because Shank, he’s so good on the radio and he gets people,” he said. “He just said one thing that actually got me going. He said, ‘Simon, we’ll just keep going until it dies.’ When he said that to me, that’s when I just flipped to the next level in my mind. I was like, ‘OK, I can do that.’
“Up until then, I was thinking, ‘Oh, ****, the race is over. We had a really good weekend but it’s all gonna end bad.’ And then when he said that it changed my whole mental approach and we saved a good result for everyone. It just shows how powerful the brain is.”