The distance between Indianapolis and France isn't as far as it looks on a map. That's certainly the case for Simon Pagenaud, more than ever.
Pagenaud is an emerging star in the IndyCar series embarking on a new era with powerhouse Penske Racing. The team's legendary status under owner Roger Penske was long since cemented when Pagenaud, 30, began seeing it thanks to images beamed across the Atlantic Ocean.
"When I was 8 I remember telling my family that I wanted to be a race car driver, either Formula One or IndyCar," Pagenaud said. "IndyCar was shown on TV in France so I knew about Penske and I knew about the stars here."
"Being one of these guys now and having achieved a lifetime dream is something quite special."
As Pagenaud prepares for his first season at Penske after three seasons at the Schmidt Peterson Hamilton team, with a debut in Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he said driving for Penske was a longtime goal.
"The transition has been pretty easy, easier than I expected, to be honest," Pagenaud said. "The big, key factor is that my engineer from the last five years (Ben Bretzman) has been hired by Team Penske."
Bretzman was not only with Pagenaud with Schmidt Peterson but also in American Le Mans Series sportscars before that.
"Simon was someone that we've had on our radar since we raced against him in the ALMS program back in 2008 when he drove for (Gil) de Ferran's team," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "We felt like with a couple of years under his belt in an IndyCar, he'd be a really good guy for us."
Cindric said Penske hadn't intended to expand to four cars — but, "we thought this was the only opportunity in Simon's career that we'd have a shot at putting him with us."
Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi have owned four-car IndyCar operations, and Cindric said Penske's ability to do so hinged on timing and opportunity — and snapping up former Andretti Autosport head of racing operations Kyle Moyer and his experience with a four-car team helped too.
"It's really interesting to see the depth of the resources, the technical research that they go into at Team Penske," Pagenaud said. "There's an answer for every question. That's something that really impresses me about Team Penske, there's no unknown quantity."
One known quantity at Penske in 2015 is the pedigree of Pagenaud's three new teammates — Helio Castroneves, who has won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Indianapolis 500 three times each; former Formula One, NASCAR and CART star Juan Montoya (also an Indy 500 champion); and Will Power, the defending series and St. Petersburg champion.
That would seem to be a lot to live up to for a newcomer to the team.
"It's a funny thing, I actually feel a lot less pressure this year than I have in the past," Pagenaud said. "My goal was to get to this point and drive for Roger. So the pressure came from that. Now that I'm here I know I'm not here for no reason, and I know that if they hired me it's because I deserve it."
He earned two victories in each of the past two seasons, including last year's inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. That gave Pagenaud something that Roger Penske — the king of the Indianapolis 500 with 15 victories — doesn't yet own, a win on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Winning there is an incredible feeling. The cars are called IndyCars. So it means everything," Pagenaud said. "I just want to reproduce the win, get a twin brother to that big trophy I have at home."
So that must have been the biggest moment of Pagenaud's career?
"The biggest moment of my career is definitely getting the contract with Team Penske," the Frenchman said. "It's something I have been dreaming about since I was a child."