Expect Simon Pagenaud to be one of the top contenders when the IndyCar Series kicks off with Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The 32-year-old Frenchman is coming off his first series championship. He drives for Team Penske, which has won eight of the series' 12 races here, including three in a row. And the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course fits Pagenaud, who finished second in the event last year.
The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Pagenaud last week for a Q&A edited for length and clarity.
What was your favorite part of your championship celebration?
Honestly, it was going back to my hometown (Poitiers, France). They prepared a celebratory evening with the race car there, and the whole city was there. It was really cool to interact with people from my hometown when I was a kid, and going back there as a winner was what I imagined when I was a kid.
I read that your first job was at your family's supermarket. What did you do?
I was 14 years old. I was in charge of the video game shop. It was Nintendo back then, Sega. It was just really getting started. I was into video games. My dad had problems finding people like that. I started ordering, the video games. It grew and grew and grew to a point where he made it bigger. I would say when I was 20, I turned the page on the grocery business and went into racing.
How is racing different between Europe and the U.S.?
I think the relationship between the fans and the drivers are different. It feels like a show more in the U.S. — we're here to present a show for the fans. In Europe, I feel like it's more secluded, a little less open. It's just a different philosophy.
All of the Penske drivers live in North Carolina. What's that like for a guy from France?
It's definitely different than what I'm used to in France. I'm not going to lie. Obviously it's NASCAR land here. It's a different culture, but I'm very open minded. I love my life. I love living here. I love the area. I love the weather, and people are very friendly. To me, it's perfect.
Have you become a BBQ fan?
I'm a BBQ master. I like cooking a lot. I don't know if it's because I'm French, or if it's just my nature. I love sitting at a table, cooking food with a glass of wine. I make ribs. I make steaks, as well, on the barbecue.
What's it like having the whole Penske operation together?
It's great. The NASCAR boys — we're all within one race shop. It's quite cool to see and to talk about experiences, because we do similar sports, but there are so many differences in the way to approach it and prepare for it because the cars are so different. Obviously they live on the road 38 weeks of the year. We don't. But our physical preparation is a lot stronger than theirs, because we have to.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.