(L-R) Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, and Gil de Ferran with the Ayrton Senna design helmet that Pagenaud will wear during the Indy 500 race. (Photo: LAT Photographic)

(L-R) , , , and with the design helmet that Pagenaud will wear during the race. (Photo: LAT Photographic)

Like many race drivers throughout the world who were youngsters in the 1990s Brazil’s, Ayrton Senna was Verizon Series driver Simon Pagenaud’s hero. When Pagenaud was growing up in France he remembers the great battles between Senna and France’s Alain Prost for the World Championship.

Pagenaud was heartbroken on that fateful day when Senna was killed in a crash on May 1, 1994 at Imola, Italy, but 20 years after his death, Senna remains an inspiration to the current generation of IndyCar Series and Formula 1 stars.

Pagenaud will honor his racing hero by wearing a specially-designed helmet in the Indianapolis 500 on May 25 as a tribute to the three-time World Champion. Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran joined Pagenaud in unveiling the helmet on Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After the Indy 500 the helmet will be auctioned off to benefit the Instituto Ayrton Senna, which aids children in need in Brazil.

“Ayrton Senna has been my lifelong hero,” said Pagenaud, who won last Saturday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. “When I began racing, I found myself feeling what Ayrton was describing. Those were very intriguing moments for me. I had a role model, a big example for me in my life.

“Even though I never met him, I inspired my whole life after him, understanding what it was all about, what he was thinking, his approach to racing — focused and dedicated — and that strength he had about concentrating. It was just understanding what he was saying that led me to understanding myself. To me, this is a way to continue his legacy somehow and this is the only way I could find to do something and show my passion for what he did. I started thinking about it about two months ago.”

Three Brazilians who have won auto racing’s greatest race – the Indianapolis 500, joined Pagenaud.

“I have memories of the first time I met Ayrton, and the influence he has on me,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske. “He was the first driver I heard who talked about physical conditioning and concentration. Really special to me was what he did for Brazil. Here, 20 years after his passing, he is revered as a hero, still remembers for carting the Brazilian flag around the race course.”

Fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan is the defending Indianapolis 500 champion and a close friend of former Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello. The same weekend Senna was killed Barrichello crashed in the same turn at Imola and suffered minor injuries.

“I owe a lot to Ayrton for where I am today,” Kanaan recalled. “When I was young and just getting onto racing, I remember before the last race in the contract I had, Ayrton told me he would help me any way he could. He told my car owner that he would be smart to keep me. And he did.

“Ayrton was a hero to almost everyone in Brazil and I was amazed at how he was received all over the world. It was not just about what he had done, but more about what it had led to. We have won 500s (referring to Castroneves and de Ferran) and we’re still not as great as he was.”

Gil de Ferran is the 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner from Sao Paulo – the largest city in Brazil and the hometown of Senna.

“This is not just for me, it is the whole racing community for what (Senna) did for racing,” de Ferran said. “He elevated the sport, which is one of the reasons he stands out. He did much for Brazil, for the kids in Brazil and for the world in general. He was an athlete the people could recognize. He inspired a whole generation His helmet, the one we have here today (that Pagenaud will wear in the 500) is something very personal. I remember designing my racing helmet in a history class when I was 14 years old.”

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