Grand Prix winner Pagenaud becoming a contender

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INDIANAPOLIS — As preparations begin for the Indianapolis 500, eyes naturally turn to the veterans.

That’s no surprise – six former winners are slated to compete in the May 25 race – including prodigals Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve. There’s a three-time winner in Helio Castroneves, the former series champ in Scott Dixon, and the popular defending winner in Tony Kanaan. Not to mention one-off perennial 500 starter Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner.

Castroneves, Dixon and Kanaan have carried the banner for the IndyCar Series for much of the last decade, piling up wins and championships. So has the recently-retired Dario Franchitti, who won three Indianapolis 500s and four IndyCar Series titles. They’ve blessed open-wheel racing through a transitional period into what is now IndyCar, with a stable driver lineup and a recognizable core of popular drivers.

But, their generation will be moving along – the youngest driver of that group, Castroneves, turned 39 on Saturday. Franchitti hung up his gloves for good after a harrowing accident at Houston last fall.

The next generation is beginning to make its presence felt. To do so, look no further than Victory Lane at Indianapolis to start the month.

Simon Pagenaud, a French native who will turn 30 later this week, has quietly made himself a contender in IndyCar racing, and a winner at Indianapolis. He stretched fuel and warded off the field – including a hard-charging Castroneves – to win the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course on Saturday.

Pagenaud was 11 years old when Villeneuve won the 1995 race – a moment that helped inspire his own racing career – and followed Formula One as Villeneuve and 2000 Indy winner Montoya were top competitors. Now, they race against each other – signaling the blend of the veteran stars and a new wave.

“It feels like a dream come true for me,” Pagenaud said. “It’s amazing to be racing guys like Montoya.  I used to look up and never thought I could be as fast as him because I never thought I could be a racecar driver. Jacques Villeneuve, for me he’s the 1997 world champion. I met him (Friday).

“There’s one side of me that it’s a special moment.  You get to meet the people that you look up to when you’re a kid.  That’s very special.  That’s kind of a fragile feeling.  Then you get to race against them and then you see blood.”

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