Detroit — Simon Pagenaud ventured outside of his comfort zone Wednesday afternoon, throwing out the first pitch prior to the Tigers' game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park.
Pagenaud was in town to promote the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader — two 70-lap races run on the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course — on Belle Isle on June 2-3.
Pagenaud has been one of the premier drivers in the IndyCar series since joining Roger Penske’s team a few years ago.
Pagenaud won the series championship in 2016, then finished runner-up to teammate Josef Newgarden a year ago.
This season, Pagenaud has struggled with the new car that has less downforce and more speed, putting more of the handling in the driver’s hands. He sits 15th in the standings with a season’s best finish of ninth last month in Alabama. Newgarden is the points leader this year with two wins.
Pagenaud, 33, is in the midst of a busy week. He practiced for the Indianapolis 500 on Monday, coming through with the second fastest time of the session, circling the 2.5-mile superspeedway at 225.910 miles per hour in his No. 22 Chevrolet.
“It’s been a busy week, but a good week though,” said Pagenaud, who plans to get in a simulator Thursday to prepare for the Indy Grand Prix that will be run May 12. “It was our first chance on the speedway and good to see the progress Chevrolet has made on the engine. We still have a lot of work to do — everybody does — but it was good to see what the car needed. It was good to get some traffic running, good for me to understand what I need to do with the car because there’s a big difference between being alone and being in traffic.
“The speed is the same, maybe a touch slower, but they just looked a lot cooler because the wings are so much smaller. It’s so much better for the fans and for the viewers, watching the cars slide in the corner. And for us, it’s also better because it feels like the cars are smaller and you can run closer to people so I like it.”
Pagenaud’s ultimate goal is to win the Indianapolis 500, especially with the series championship already in his back pocket.
After the IndyCar Grand Prix, the drivers will then qualify for the Indy 500 on May 19. The Indy 500 will be held on May 27.
“We’ve had a few races with the high downforce kit with more wings on the road course configurations and we just raced Barber (in Alabama) which is a similar track to Indianapolis, the Grand Prix, so we have more data, more information on what we need for the car,” Pagenaud said.
“We’re still learning about the new car. For us veterans, it’s harder because we’re used to having more grip and now we have to go back down in our driving style to adjust.”
And, the new car has left for interesting situations that at times involved Pagenaud, whose No. 22 Chevrolet was run into on the opening lap by Graham Rahal at Long Beach then slowed down by Gabby Chaves at Alabama.
“Every time I see him I keep telling him, ‘Hey, make sure you check your brakes,’” Pagenaud said of Rahal, who said his brakes didn’t work.
And, on Chaves who was two laps down at Alabama?
“When it’s not your day and you’re down laps, why stay in the way of someone who is having a good day? I just don’t get that,” Pagenaud said.
Pagenaud has reason to look forward to competing on Belle Isle since he won a race in 2013 while driving for Sam Schmidt, then finished third in his first year with Penske in 2015, second in 2016 and fifth last summer.
"It’s always fun to come here, our home event and, obviously, Roger’s hometown. For Chevrolet, it’s also its hometown, the Motor City so we want to do well here,” Pagenaud said. “I love the race track personally, won my first IndyCar race here.
“It’s important for us to get good results here. It’s a two-race event, and obviously since I haven’t had a great start this is now the time when I have to start scoring big points.”
The Indianapolis 500 is a double-points race, putting the consecutive weekends as the chance for drivers to separate themselves from the rest of the field in the fight for the series title.
So, what’s it going to take to win on Belle Isle with the new car in place?
“I think it’s going to be a lot harder to drive. It won’t be easy at all and I think good suspension work with aerodynamic together needs to be perfectly matched,” Pagenaud said. “Every little difference will be more important now that the car has gotten less grip in general with less downforce. The racing is going to be great.”
Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix
When: Friday, June 1 through Sunday, June 3.
Where: Belle Isle.
IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on June 2 and June 3, 3:30 p.m. each day, 70 laps each.
Friday – TransAm Race 1, 4:35 p.m.
Saturday – TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.
Sunday – TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.