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New year has new challenges

SEBRING INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY - Simon Pagenaud is a veteran of the 12 Hours of Sebring. He's been competing here since 1998, as well as in other endurance races around the world.

But this year's going to be different. There's more than 65 cars racing in the Mobil 1 62nd 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.

"That's more than I've ever seen out here," Pagenaud said, who will be driving for Extreme Speed Motorsports' Tequila Patron Team in the Prototype class. "It's going to be heavy traffic. We're going to have to be on our toes even more."

ESM's HPD-ARX-03b Protrotype car is one of the fastest in the field, and Pagenaud knows he'll need to be aware of all the other cars out on the track.

"We'll have to go through a lot of traffic out there," he said. "And we'll have to get creative in making our passes and make sure we're tight on our turns."

But Pagenaud might have a slight mental advantage over other drivers. He and ESM think of Sebring as their home track, and Pagenaud's fresh from a victory in his native country of France, where he won his first-ever rally car race in the IndyCar Series at the Rallye National de la Vienne last weekend.

Pageuand said he's anxious to keep up the "home" winning streak. "Our team is based here in Florida and we think of this as our home - this is our track," he said. "We want to win here."

And winning the historical 12 Hours gives ESM some bragging rights.

"Sebring is known around the world to be one of the biggest races," Pagenaud said. "This is a great race. People know its challenging, but that's what makes it special. It's early on the calendar and a great way to get the season started. Everyone gets tested, from the crews to the drivers."

The roughness of Sebring International Raceway will also provide ESM with some information about the sturdiness of its car, as well as its drivers.

Pagenaud has made the jump from Sebring to the 24 Hours of Le Mans quite often. In 2011, he finished second overall in the Le Mans Prototype 1 Class while racing for Team Peugeot Total.

And like many drivers who have competed in both races, Pagenaud agrees that Sebring can be even harder on a driver's body and car than Le Mans.

"This is a great race, but it can really wear you down," Pagenaud said. "Even the cars take a beating. It's always been one of the wildest rides out there, but you add in all the speed, the hot weather, the roughness of the track, and all these cars - it's going to be crazy."

But living life in the fast lane is something Pagenaud's known for most of his life. He started racing when he was 8 years old, his love for racing born from watching events on TV.

"My mom was a dancer," he said. "So she knew what it was like to be an athlete. And she pushed my dad to help me and make it happen."

And both will be watching on Saturday at 10:15 a.m. when the 12 Hours officially begins. Unfortunately, there's a more than a seven-hour time difference between the United States and France. But that won't stop Pagenaud's family.

"They'll have to stay up late to see me," he said, laughing.