Simon Pagenaud has an Indianapolis 500 title in his sights this weekend - but regardless of the outcome, he's going home a winner.
That is, if you consider a prank war viable competition.
Pagenaud pulled the mother of all pranks last week, the final salvo in an entertaining back-and-forth autograph war with Penske teammate Josef Newgarden. Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar Series champion, had Newgarden pulled over by a police officer after he had performed an illegal U-turn; the officer then served the 27-year-old with a citation that Pagenaud had signed:
Pagenaud spoke with theScore on Tuesday to discuss the prank exchange, along with a tidbit of Indy-related analysis:
James Bisson: So, how did this prank war start?
Simon Pagenaud: Josef and I, we just like to poke each other a little bit. He's the American stereotype and I'm the French stereotype, so it works pretty good. (laughs)
I know that, when you start poking Josef, he can't stop - he has to poke you back. So I noticed that he didn't sign his die-cast models at the Indianapolis airport. So I called him out on social media about it, and of course, he signed them. And then after that, he signed a replica of an IndyCar at the airport and told me that I wasn't taking things big enough.
Where things really escalated was that night, when we went back home together on the plane back to Charlotte. During the night, he snuck over to my house and he signed the front of my house, which was freshly painted. That's where things got a bit more exciting.
JB: What have been the highlights of this back-and-forth war?
SP: The highlights of this battle have been me signing his mom for him, and then definitely the banner ... outside (Indianapolis Motor Speedway), we have huge banners with our face and our name; I signed right next to his face. After that, he signed my motorhome, which was pretty good.
The latest one was the one I was waiting for for a long time. That was actually one of my first ideas, the cop prank; I just had to put it all together. And I basically got him with it - I got him pulled over, and signed his citation ticket.
JB: How long did it take you to set that one up?
SP: It took a while; I think this started in March. I just had to connect with the right cops at the Indy PD, which we did, because obviously, we have a lot of connections there. And Hailey (McDermott), my fiance, she knew a cop that's around the track all the time. Through him, we managed to get Sam, the guy that pulled Josef over. And he had a great sense of humor, so it was perfect.
The biggest problem was to find a way to get the GoPros in his car and make him believe it was for a different event; that was tough to do. And then, obviously, scheduling was really tough. We're very busy during the month. So it wasn't easy to do, but I was quite pleased. As you could see, I was still in my race suit; I didn't have time to change. (laughs)
JB: How long had you been following Josef before he made the U-turn?
SP: Not long at all. Practice finished at six ... by the time we were finished with interviews, (it was) 6:30. And he had a dinner at seven, so I knew that he would leave between 6:30 and seven. So as soon as my interviews were over, I went over to the cop car, and I hid in it, and we parked outside the driver lot at the speedway and waited for Josef to come out.
He came out of the track, and I was hoping he was going to take that U-turn, which he did, and we pulled him over. The whole thing only took 10 minutes.
JB: When you watch the footage from their GoPro, you can see that Ashley Welch, Josef's girlfriend, realizes almost right away that they were getting busted for the U-turn. How fun was it to watch their video?
SP: The funny thing is, (Penske president Tim Cindric) asked me if it was staged. And I said the same thing to the editor and the producer of the video; I told them, "It looks staged." Because what I'm saying is exactly what Josef is saying in his car, and what I was expecting is exactly what he was saying - which was tremendous, but it made it look like it was all staged. And it wasn't.
It was quite funny to see that we were thinking the same thing at the same time. I was hoping he was going to take the U-turn, and he took it. And after that, when I said he probably thinks (the cop car) is not for him, and then he said he didn't think it was for him, that added to the fun of it. We were pretty much on the same page on all of it.
JB: What will you remember from having this kind of interaction with Josef?
SP: This was fun to do, and it was also an opportunity to show our true sides, the way we really are. It's one of those PR stunts that wasn't staged; this is purely organic. There was no request from the team or from IndyCar to do this; it was just me and Josef having fun. I'm so glad Team Penske allowed us to continue. They had a great sense of humor about it.
It's probably the end of it now, I have to say. Probably, too many people would want to get involved at this point, so we're probably going to leave it at that.
JB: So does that make you the winner?
SP: Well, you know, I mean ... I guess so, yes. (laughs)
There can only be one winner. But honestly, I think Josef has been a great sport. His face, his reaction, is what made the whole thing so amazing. But he had some really great moves; I just topped it at the end.
It's just probably good that we get to the end, because who knows where we could have been? It could have been crazy. (laughs) And that's what we agreed on. As long as it's not mean, as long as it's funny, and as long as there's no money spent for repair or anything, it's OK.
JB: How important is it to show racing fans that side of you?
SP: I'm a very professional person. Up until recently, I never really showed that side because I thought people would say I'm not professional.
It's interesting these days to see that people love to see that side of us. The more I look at interviews, and the longer I'm involved in racing, the more I see that it's boring. It's really boring. There are no interviews that are better than others, there's nothing you can say that will make you stand out. I feel like it's time for sports to change a little bit and show people what they want to see.
I realized that, and I've opened up a little bit more. My fiance, Hailey, has been a great influence in making that happen and giving me confidence in the real person I am. I've never really shown that on the circuit because I've always protected my private side. But that's pretty much who I am in real life, and I think it's a bit of a shocker for people - and that's why it's been so welcome.
JB: Should racing fans expect to see more of the jovial side of Simon Pagenaud moving forward?
SP: Well, it has to be for the right reasons. For me to show it, it has to be worthwhile. I don't want to do it to do it; that's not my personality. I want it to be relevant, and I want it to be good quality.
If I have some good ideas, I'm going to show it, definitely. (laughs)
JB: You're starting from the No. 2 spot Sunday. You've had good starting positions here before, but while your results are consistent, you haven't had that great finish. How do you assess your chances this weekend?
SP: I definitely have a fantastic car this year, and also an engine that has a tremendous amount of power. You've seen it in qualification; I think Chevy has the upper hand this year. We've also made great improvements, and I think we have a shot.
I'm going to do everything I can. We're pretty much ready to go, but it's such a difficult race to win, we'll see how that goes. We'll do everything in our power to make it happen.
JB: Let's finish with a scenario: You cross the line first, you hoist the traditional bottle of milk, and you see that "someone" has scrawled the initials "JN" across it. What do you do?
SP: (Laughs) I'll smile big. That would be the best thing that could happen to me, so I hope it goes down that way.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)