Spending the weekend at a NASCAR race meant getting mistaken for his lookalike â the guy who played French driver Jean Girard in Talladega Nights. Dana Hunsinger Benbow, email@example.com
It happened again. Simon Pagenaud assumed it would. He was at a NASCAR race, after all.Â
And it was in the land of NASCAR where Jean Girard came to fame in the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights” as the French driver, the bad guy, taking on superstar Ricky Bobby.
As Pagenaud made his way about Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, plenty of peopleÂ whispered as he walked by in his black pants and polo shirt.
Is thatÂ Pagenaud, the Indianapolis 500 champion? Or Sacha Baron Cohen? Some were half joking. Others weren’t joking at all.
One man had noÂ doubt. This was Cohen.
“A fan this morning came up to me and really thought that I was the guy in the movie, really thought that I was actually Sacha Baron Cohen,” Pagenaud told IndyStar inside the speedway pagoda. “Quite funny.”
What was funnier? Pagenaud didn’t correct him; he didn’t have the heart to.
“I didn’t want to offend him so IÂ didn’t say anything back, saying it wasn’t me (Cohen),” Pagenaud said. “IÂ guess I just look like him, so I just embrace it.”Â
Janice Rainey was outside the pagoda as Pagenaud left and she snapped a photo of him on her cellphone. She knew it wasn’t Cohen.
“I love NASCAR,” she said. “But there is something NASCAR-ish about him. I guess it’s the movie. When it comes to IndyCar, he’s my man.”
And so on Sunday, it became evident thatÂ in the world of stock car fans, Pagenaud just might beÂ NASCAR’s favorite IndyCar driver.Â
Outside the track sittingÂ at a picnic table Larry Means couldn’t stop talking. He hates IndyCar. NASCAR is his sport. The two are so different, he said, he doesn’tÂ understand how anyone could be fans of both.
Yet, when asked who his favorite IndyCar driver is, “I adore Pagenaud,” he said.
Yes. That’s why. He owns “Talladega Nights: The Balllad of Ricky Bobby” andÂ has watched it at least 15 times. Sometimes, when he seesÂ Pagenaud on TV or social media, he forgets he’s not Girard.
“It always makes me smile,” he said.
In the movie, NASCAR superstar Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) starts falling apart whenÂ French Formula One champion Jean Girard (Cohen) moves onto the circuit.
Girard, sponsored by sparkling water maker Perrier, annoys Bobby and at one pointÂ breaks his arm because heÂ refuses to say “I like crĂ¨pes.”Â He then ousts the injured American as the top driver forÂ Dennit Racing. Bobby eventually works his way back up the leaderboard.
When the rivals meet at Talladega Speedway, another driver causes a massive wreck that leaves only them unscathed. They then both wreck while trying to outmaneuver each other and race on foot to the finish line. After Bobby crosses the line first, Girard offers his hand in gracious defeat.
“Reeky Boeby,” he says in his thick accent, “by defeating me, you have set me free.”
When asked to do the GirardÂ impression Sunday, Pagenaud laughed. “I don’t need to do the impression,” he said. “It’s there. All I need to do is speak more French.”
Pagenaud was born in Montmorillon, France, the son of a grocery store owner. He gotÂ interested in cars at 4 years old.
“I was always playing with cars. I always loved engines and steering wheels,” he said. “So, I started go-carting at 7 like just casually and then started racing when I was 10. And some people could see that something was strange, some kind of talent.”
He was working stocking milk and cheese, all the fresh foods,Â at his father’s store when in 2005, Pagenaud moved to Indianapolis. Like Girard, he hadÂ tried for Formula OneÂ first.
“The truth is IÂ didn’t have the right relationships,” he said. “My family was not in racing. IÂ was trying to make it on my own but, not knowing the right people, it was very difficult. And then there was a choice I made to come to America and take a chance and live the American dream.”
From 2005 to 2014, PagenaudÂ lived in IndianapolisÂ and immersed himself in the world of IndyCar. But he also watched NASCAR drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“I’ve always been a Jimmie fan; he’s won so many championships,” Pagenaud said, adding that he got to meet Johnson this weekend. “He’s the guyÂ I started watching to understand about oval, same as Dale, Jr.Â Those guys really just taught me a lot by watching what they were doing.”
Pagenaud said he has a lot of respect for NASCAR; it’sÂ what gave him his love for racing.
“NASCAR’s interesting,” said Pagenaud, whoÂ lives in Charlotte now. “IÂ learned to love the sport (of racing) because of it and I also loveÂ the history of NASCAR. IndyCar and NASCAR requireÂ a veryÂ different set of skills and I respect that.”
He spent the weekend at IMS as the reigning Indy 500 champ, hanging with his Team Penske in Joey Logano’s pit box.
“Obviously my pure love is Indianapolis 500, IndyCar but that doesn’tÂ mean you can’t be interested in other sports,” he said. “Being able to be immersed in the NASCAR world this weekend was trulyÂ phenomenal.”
Even if he did get mistaken for a fictional driver.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter:Â @DanaBenbow. Reach her via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.