Sympathy for a guy on the wrong side of racing’s cruel streak

Sympathy for a guy on the wrong side of racing's cruel streak
Sympathy for a guy on the wrong side of racing's cruel streak

I find myself deeply in love with motor racing about 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent is spent in a state of hate with some aspect of the sport that’s either dumb or cruel, and it’s here where I’ve been struggling to stave off those sentiments whenever I think of Simon Pagenaud and the painful reality he’s been dealing with since the end of June.

More than one month removed from the frightening brake component failure and repeated barrel rolls he endured at Mid-Ohio, the Frenchman’s plight is a reminder of how the time required to make a full recovery from a bad concussion is hazy at best, and confusing at its worst.

The sheer violence of Pagenaud’s crash was astonishing. But more so, what stood out was his remarkable ability to climb from the battered car and walk unaided across the sand trap at Mid-Ohio’s Turn 4 — on unstable ground — without any apparent signs of difficulty.

His interview afterwards with NBC also gave no indications of cognitive issues, and based on the smooth walk to the emergency vehicle and fully lucid interactions on the broadcast, the full effects of Pagenaud’s concussion went largely undetected in the 30 minutes that followed the impact. Any notion that he emerged from the crash unscathed was soon dispelled as IndyCar’s doctors conducted testing that confirmed he was unfit to drive for the remainder of the weekend.

Today’s news of Pagenaud’s ongoing absence from the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda, which will reach six consecutive races after Saturday’s IndyCar race on the IMS road course, draws a bolder line beneath the unpredictable nature of brain injuries. There’s no answer to when the lingering effects of a concussion will subside and allow for a return to the cockpit.

It also raises the uncomfortable question of whether he’ll be able to resume his career before the championship concludes on September 10.

There are just over 30 days left in the season, and for his sake as a free agent, Pagenaud is facing a heart-wrenching urgency to demonstrate he’s at full strength and capable of delivering great results to secure a new contract to stay in IndyCar.

There were few hints of the full implications of Pagenaud’s Mid-Ohio crash when he first emerged from the car. Travis Hinkle/Motorsport Images

Without the necessary clearance from IndyCar’s medical staff to get back to work, he’s in a situation that’s becoming more precarious as the clock winds down and the opportunities to drive are surrendered to time. Pagenaud will have the August 27 oval race at World Wide Technology Raceway, the road course at Portland on Sept. 3, and Laguna Seca circuit on the 10th as the last chances to compete before the offseason arrives and nearly five months of inactivity ensues.

My sympathy for Pagenaud is immense. As a former champion and Indy 500 winner, his acquisition by MSR was a huge thing for the team as it went into 2022 with Helio Castroneves as his teammate. And despite a few bright spots along the way, 2023 – the second year of their two-year contract – was filled with disappointment prior to the crash.

The sympathy from his team is also a powerful thing, and as Mike Shank told me after Linus Lundqvist made a strong case to be given the keys to the No. 60 for the rest of the season, they aren’t rushing to move on from Pagenaud.

“We’re just not those people,” he said. “We’re not going to let Simon out of our lives because a part failed on our car. That’s heavy for me. So we want to see him get better, on his time.”

Where the difficulty for Shank, fellow co-owner Jim Meyer, and Pagenaud is found is in the need for MSR to raise its game in 2024.

The team arrived at Mid-Ohio with Castroneves sitting 20th in the championship and Pagenaud in 24th, which is miles below expectation. And while MSR’s drivers by no means shoulder all the blame for the team’s poor form, the Ohio-based outfit must improve if it wants to keep its partners and sponsors fully invested in the program.

Going forward is the only acceptable outcome next year, and being able to continue running with Pagenaud over the last three races would give MSR a chance to make an informed decision on whether he’s ready to lead the team in that process. Without that chance, MSR will need our sympathy as well.

“We have a very delicate balance we’re dealing with, because we’ve also got 45 people that work here full-time and we have to start figuring out our Plan A and Plan B and what our future could look like,” Shank said. “It doesn’t feel so good for anyone; not knowing what that will be. I can tell you that we’ve made no decision on that yet, and we’re literally taking it week by week with Simon.”


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