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Ben Smith

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Qualifying
Day 1
When: 4 p.m. today
TV: ABC
Associated Press
Simon Pagenaud, who won the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis a week ago, still finds it hard to believe he is competing against drivers at the Indianapolis 500 that he idolized.
Indianapolis 500

Pagenaud living a dream

– Jean Girard. As if.

Sure, Simon Pagenaud may look like, may sound like, may even be as French as the fictitious stock car racer from “Talladega Nights,” but from here on out you can consign his erstwhile nickname to the flames.

You can make ashes of it now that Pagenaud is up there in the pantheon with Ray Harroun and Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher, plus all other inaugural champions at this ancient monument to speed and occasional folly.

History lands on you with both feet here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and seven days later Pagenaud still bears its imprint. Guy wins the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and suddenly his phone is blowing up and his inbox is full and all of France knows who he is and wants to let him know they know.

How many emails is it again?

“More than 200,” Pagenaud says. “And past 200 texts as well.”

So, yeah, he’s famous now, maybe not DeGaulle or Marcel Marceau famous, but pretty famous for a 29-year-old who’d won all of two IndyCar races before the GP of Indy. And now he gets to see if success is transferable at Indy, where for most it’s never really been anything more than fickle.

“For sure, any win gives you confidence as a driver,” he said Friday, before clearing 228.5 on a raw, overcast Fast Friday all but wiped out by rain. “Obviously we do this to win races, and (getting) a win before the Indy 500 was very important for my whole team, for the dynamic.

“We’re going into this as winners, with the spirit of winners. It couldn’t be any better.”

Oh, sure it could. He could be on the far side of qualifying right now, a thorny enough task at Indy that’s been made even more so by a new format that took a two-page handout to kinda-sorta explain.

Distilled to its kinda-sorta essence, it turns what used to be Pole Day into Pole Weekend, with Saturday a sort of jumped-up practice that establishes the Fast Nine pole finalists and little else.

Come Sunday, everyone’s Saturday runs are wiped off the board; the Fast Nine will decide the pole and first three rows, positions 10 through 30 will decide their running order, and the 11th row will separately determine its qualifying order.

Got all that?

Pagenaud gets only that his life has changed, and what happens today and Sunday and a week from Sunday could change it again. And that’s head-turning for a guy who grew up idolizing the late Ayrton Senna, and who, two years after Sam Schmidt plucked him from the unemployment line, still can’t quite believe he’s sharing the world’s most iconic racing facility with, well, icons.

“I remember the day Jacques (Villeneuve) won (the 500) with Forsythe and his helmet with the strange color,” Pagenaud said last week. “I met him yesterday. It was kind of a funny feeling …

“It feels like a dream come true for me. It’s amazing to be racing guys like (Juan Pablo) Montoya. I used to look up and never thought I could be as fast as him because I never thought I could be a race car driver.”

And now look at him. This weekend and next, with the blessing of the Senna family, he’ll wear a helmet painted the same distinctive yellow as Senna’s. He’ll try to qualify for his third Indy 500, after finishing eighth last year and 16th in 2012. And if he’d happen to win …

“The more I’m going to do this, the more I win races, the more interest there’s going to be (in France),” Pagenaud says.

Take that, Jean Girard.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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