Simon Pagenaud’s Team Penske race engineer Ben Bretzman joined his older brother Eric on Sunday as an Indy 500 winner. Eric Bretzman’s victory with Scott Dixon at the 2008 Indy 500 opened the family’s account at the Speedway, and with Ben’s win last weekend, it’s believed they’ve become Indy’s first set of brothers to win the big American race from the engineering stand.
“That’s awesome, right?” the younger Bretzman (pictured at right, above, with Pagenaud) said. “Looking back at it, my dad was an old gearhead in the ’60s and ’70s and put a lot of work and effort into us — trying go-karts, to see if we were actually good enough to be a driver or not, and learning we weren’t, and putting a lot of money and effort into basically teaching us about racing and cars.
“I think it’s a super proud moment for him, because both his kids have Indy 500s. That’s a pretty cool deal, and I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about, how happy Pops is.”
As Andretti Autosport’s technical director, Eric Bretzman isn’t responsible for engineering Alexander Rossi, the driver who fought Pagenaud for the win, but he does have his hand in making all of the Andretti cars contenders at every round. It wasn’t a direct case of Bretzman vs. Bretzman on Sunday, but it wasn’t too far removed.
“I’ve raced against him a lot now, so it’s always fun to see,” Ben continued. “It used to be, when he was Scott Dixon’s engineer, it was really hard everywhere. But now he’s got his hands over all the Andretti cars, right? Yeah, it’s special. It’s fun to be competitive with him there. It’s a great arena to do it in.
“It’s always special just to know your brother’s out there and we’re pushing each other as hard as we can. It’s one of those things you take pride in as a family in general. He’s always going to be competitive. He always has been, everything he’s done in his career. Unfortunately, it’s family that you gotta beat…”
Having won an ALMS championship with Pagenaud almost a decade ago, placed third in the 2013 IndyCar points with the Frenchman at the then-small Schmidt Peterson Motorsports outfit, and won the 2016 IndyCar title together at Penske, Ben Bretzman knows when his driver is performing at an elite level. Coming off a rough, winless 2018, Pagenaud’s engineer has seen tangible changes to the 35-year-old’s demeanor which, after sweeping the month of May, has a similar feel to what was used to devastating effect in the past.
“There’s a lot of little things that basically point to Simon Pagenaud never forgot how to drive,” he said. “When we were starting to hit on a couple things last year, you could see it. He was there, but he just didn’t have the confidence. You get beat down enough in anything in life. Like it’s hard to push yourself to the level that you need to be at. But you could see, there were glimpses of Simon there last year when all things were going right. Then we did a bunch of other work, whether it’s driving simulators, you could see it there. He was immensely fast.
“And then we basically started seeing in the off season this year, when we started to apply some of the things we wanted to do to help improve him, all of a sudden last year, when we would be we would be two-, four-, five-tenths off our team cars at all the tests [with the new Universal Aero Kit], whether it’s road courses, street course, or testing at Sebring. And we go to our first test in Sebring [this year] and all of a sudden, he’s right there. Under a tenth to Will [Power] and right on top of everybody. You could see the glimmer of light in his eyes. He knew right away that it was there, and he was happy with his driving, happy with his performance.
Ben likes the No. 22 Chevy team’s chances leaving Indy as they embark on the double-header in Detroit, Texas Motor Speedway, and other venues where the new-old Pagenaud has shown his mettle.
“We’re just starting to gain momentum,” he adds. “What was lacking at the start of the season was just that sheer confidence to win. He hadn’t won in so long, right? And you kind of have to get yourself over the hump to do that. And it definitely wasn’t going to be a speed thing coming into the year. The pit crew was good; he was plenty quick. You have to will yourself over the finish line. I think he’s there now. He’s right back to, at least where we were in 2016, 2017. Ready to rip.”