Simon Pagenaud won the Indianapolis 500, the most renowned car race in the United States, on Sunday May 26. He is the first French driver to claim victory for over a century.
The last time a French driver was at the top of the podium in Indianapolis, World War I had not yet begun and protective gear consisted of a leather helmet and a pair of goggles. On a press etching of his victory on May 30, 1914, René Thomas looks like a mustachioed airplane pilot behind the wheel of his Delage Type Y racecar. He completed 200 laps in 6 hours, 3 minutes, and 45 seconds, an average speed of 83 miles per hour, and won the prize of 20,000 dollars!
René Thomas (left) in his Delage racecar in 1914. © Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The 500-mile race in Indianapolis, nicknamed the “Indy 500,” is one of the top three most prestigious car races in the world along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is also the oldest! Automobile manufacturers (and drivers) have been going head to head since 1911 on the rectangular track, which was originally paved with bricks before asphalt was introduced in the 1930s. A merciless test of endurance.
On May 30, 1913, Jules Goux became the first French driver to win at Indianapolis. Originally from Valentigney in the Doubs département, he drove to victory in a Peugeot L76 in 6 hours and 35 minutes. A win made possible by champagne bubbles, according to the press at the time. Not only did the driver and his mechanic fill up the tank and change the tires during the pitstops, they also used these short breaks to have a drink! A journalist from the Indianapolis Star counted six bottles of champagne in total — and a seventh to celebrate the end of the race!
“Old World Drivers”
The following year, four French cars finished in the top five, including two Delages, (one of which was driven by winner René Thomas), and two Peugeots. This win was a triumph for French manufacturers and a sharp shock for the Americans, as recorded in car magazine The Horseless Age: “One hundred thousand sad-hearted, gloomy American automobile race enthusiasts passed out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday evening after witnessing one of the most crushing defeats ever administered to American motor machines at the hands of Old World drivers.”
Gaston Chevrolet (right), winner at Indianapolis in 1920. © Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Another Frenchman made a name for himself in Indianapolis in 1920. Gaston Chevrolet was born in Beaune in Burgundy, and travelled to the United States to join his brother Louis, a mechanic and the future founder of the Chevrolet brand. But Gaston applied for American citizenship in 1914 and its was as a U.S. citizen that he drove — and won — in Indianapolis on May 31, 1920. The event has been dominated by American drivers ever since.
Until this year, that is. Simon Pagenaud, a native of Montmorillon in Western France who moved to the United States in 2006, blazed to victory in 2 hours, 30 minutes, and 39 seconds. In a historical nod, he was driving a Chevrolet car. This landmark victory was lauded by Donald Trump, who called the driver on his cell phone just after the race and congratulated him again on Twitter: “I got to watch Simon drive one of the greatest races in the history of the sport. I will see them both [Pagenaud and Roger Penske, the owner of his team], & TEAM, at the WH!”