Josef Newgarden now planted in IndyCar’s champions field
The spelling of his first name is abnormal, with an -f instead of a -ph ending. The spelling of his last name is the closest in racing to a Belgian wheat beer, Hoegaarden.
But much like wheat, hops, and yeast, on Sunday Josef Newgarden’s completion as the finished article has finally brewed to the surface.
And like one of his sponsors at Team Penske, Miller Lite, Newgarden is an American home-brew who goes down smooth.
At 26 years of age, and after his sixth season, Newgarden is the Verizon IndyCar Series’ first champion under 30 years old since Scott Dixon at 28 in 2008, and the youngest overall since Dixon again in 2003, at 23.
Dixon is well on his way to being regarded as the all-time elite driver of his generation, but Newgarden has laid the first major layer to being the pre-eminent driver of the next one.
Fellow champions Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais are all in their late 30s or early 40s, along with Will Power and Simon Pagenaud who are Newgarden’s teammates. Along with the possibly-getting-moved-out-of-IndyCar Helio Castroneves, they’re all closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.
Newgarden, whose former social media presence was under the “Racer of Tomorrow” moniker and who famously debuted on the IndyCar video scene as a rookie in 2012 going “incognito” at Long Beach, is the driver who can lead a generation of perhaps a dozen recent Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates to the big time. Along with 25-year-old Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion, IndyCar has two potential huge, young American stars to build with for its future.
Newgarden’s title, driving the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, comes after his own decade-plus of growth from a teenager racing go-karts starting at New Castle Motorsports Park in Indiana to returning home to the U.S. after his brief sojourn in Europe, and evolving year-by-year.
THE DISCOVERY BY THE TEAM USA SCHOLARSHIP
Racing journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Shaw is regarded as perhaps the unofficial “patron saint of American driver talent scouting.” Shaw is a racing lifer and since establishing the Team USA Scholarship in 1990, and working with the scholarship’s partners, has gone on to discover a number of eventual open-wheel and sports car winners, champions and stars. Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Memo Gidley, Tony Renna, Buddy Rice, Joey Hand, Andy Lally, Bryan Sellers, AJ Allmendinger, Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, Dane Cameron and Joel Miller were among notable recipients from 1990 through 2007.
And then came 2008, when two bashful, dorky young teenagers named Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly were both named Team USA Scholarship recipients in the same year (pictured far left and second from left, in 2012).
It was perfect symmetry given both had developed a friendship and rivalry that still exists to this day, having began in karting. This gave them both their first shot in Europe, racing with Cliff Dempsey Racing for the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy.
Shaw explained what he saw in Newgarden.
“I couldn’t be happier for Josef. It was plainly obvious back in 2008 that he was especially talented -- both in and out of the car,” he told NBC Sports.
“He and Conor Daly were already great friends from their karting days, so that chemistry certainly helped to bring out the best in both of them during their trip to the UK as representatives of the Team USA Scholarship.
“They spurred each other on, working fabulously well with the team, Cliff Dempsey Racing, and brought home the desired results as Josef won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and then a couple of weeks later Conor added the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.”
Both drivers’ form back then laid the groundwork for their eventual journeys to IndyCar, though how they got there followed a winding road.
THE 2011 INDY LIGHTS SEASON THAT CHANGED HISTORY
Newgarden completed an eleventh hour deal to race with Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ Indy Lights team in 2011, returning home to the U.S. after a single year in Europe in GP3. One of his teammates? That was Daly, who’d won the Pro Mazda championship a year earlier in 2010, and had scholarship budget with which to move up to Indy Lights. But what followed will remain one of the greatest unanswered questions in open-wheel racing the last decade or so.
Daly led the points after the first three races, with a win at Long Beach coming on a day when Newgarden crashed out. As Daly had not yet given up on an F1 dream though, his season was split between there and GP3, and so he didn’t run the full Indy Lights season. Newgarden promptly won the next round - the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis - for his most crucial win yet of the season.
Newgarden never looked back the rest of the way en route to that year’s title, and a graduation to IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in a rare three-year deal. Daly would spend parts of the next four years making his way back home, and only had his first full season in 2016 with Dale Coyne Racing - as Newgarden entered his fifth.
“WE KNEW WE HAD A GEM”
The Fisher and Wink Hartman partnership allowed Newgarden’s seed to grow over three years. Mistakes were made, obviously, but the signs he could become a star - fearless, brash, yet humble and grounded as well - were obvious from the third race he ever drove in IndyCar.
A bizarre scenario had occurred in qualifying thanks to IndyCar’s rules at the time that assessed 10-spot grid penalties to any car that had changed engines. So although Dario Franchitti and Josef Newgarden had qualified only fourth and seventh, engine penalties to all Chevrolet-powered cars - who had changed engines - meant they’d start on the front row.
Newgarden channeled his inner Tom Petty and did not back down. He went to Franchitti’s outside at Turn 1 going for the lead. But Franchitti’s tactical defense was the racing equivalent of telling young Newgarden, “don’t do me like that,” and Newgarden crashed into the Turn 1 wall. It was the first sign of his aggression that has served him so well in his championship year.
“I think we knew long before then that we had a gem,” Fisher, now IndyCar’s pace car driver, told NBC Sports on Sunday.
“At 20 he couldn’t even have a beer – not that he drinks! But he grew up, fast. When you’re put in that type of situation, you grow up a lot quicker. He works as hard out of the car as he does in it, and that’s what makes him first class.”
Though Newgarden’s first win didn’t come until 2015 at Barber, after a number of heartbreaking missed opportunities over 2013 and 2014, his initial years at SFHR gave him room to grow.
BECOMING PENSKE PERFECT
It was the two years that Newgarden took the next step, driving with Ed Carpenter, into becoming a driver set to graduate to one of the top three teams. And with the looks, partner savvy, pace and performance at his disposal, he was always destined to drive for Team Penske - it was just a matter of when.
In a 2015 interview at Mid-Ohio, when he hadn’t yet re-signed for CFH Racing (before it reverted back to Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016), Newgarden thanked his current employers profusely, but also teased his desire and ambition to go bigger.
“This whole group would like to have me back and I’d like to be back. But I have to look for the best opportunity for me, too,” he told me then.
His one year re-signing with Carpenter for 2016 was that best opportunity. Carpenter hailed what Newgarden did in 2015 with CFH as they sought to build together for 2016.
“He had speed and raced well everywhere. At the end of the season at Sonoma, he was one of seven guys that were still eligible for the title. That was really, I think, important for him to know that he can be in that discussion, be a part of that championship mix,” Carpenter said going into the 2016 season, with his next line proving prescient.
“He is one of the few guys in the series that has the versatility as a driver and the pace on all circuits to be able to contend for a championship.”
Newgarden’s improbable Road America quick return, and Iowa crushing dominance, after his devastating accident in Texas - with Daly - provided one of the stories of the 2016 season.
Penske knew it had to have him and threw out one of the most naturally gifted drivers of this generation in Juan Pablo Montoya to do so.
“It obviously wasn’t an easy decision when we decided that Josef was available, and Montoya had done a really good job for us along the way and we needed to make a decision if we were going to build for the future or what we were going to do, and we sat down and talked to Juan, and he said, ‘Look, I don’t like it, but if I was in your shoes I’d do the same thing; he’s the guy that I would pick,’” said Tim Cindric, Team Penske president.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP YEAR OF GROWTH AND CHANGE
The Newgarden of 2017 is not the Newgarden of 2012, but retains those elements that made him a fascinating driver to cover from the start.
Significantly more mature, Newgarden is very much team and partner-first, really integrating himself into the Penske mold. He’s not the comedic tour de force that James Hinchcliffe is, or that both his own PR staff or IndyCar was trying to build him as - but that’s good, because it allows Newgarden to be himself, first.
He’s bonded immediately with new engineer Brian Campe, also newish to IndyCar but who in a short amount of time has now won both an Indianapolis 500 with Montoya and a title with Newgarden in three years. That they’ve started from scratch on setup this year but gelled as they have speaks volumes of their working relationship.
He’s adjusted to living in Charlotte, being near the Penske shop and two of his teammates, after returning to the U.S. and being based in Indianapolis.
“I would agree it’s been my biggest year of change. It’s been my biggest opportunity,” Newgarden said Sunday night.
“I’ve had so much to -- I think live up to in that you have champions around you, you have guys pushing you every week that are making you get the most out of yourself and you have to match them. So it’s given me the biggest opportunity to grow and to prove myself in that environment, and that’s been fun. It’s been really fun and challenging for me.
“I feel like starting out as a one-car team and trying to figure things out myself was very beneficial to me. I think it’s given me all my strength that I have in racing is that when I first started, you know what, it wasn’t the best situation. I loved driving for SFHR and they did so much for me, but I’ll be honest it wasn’t the easiest situation.
“We had our backs against the wall a lot of times. We were a brand new team, it was a brand new car. We were a one-car team, so it was hard to go through those times with no previous setups, no information, no data to look at, no real thought process. You just had to formulate it yourself. And I think all those moments prepared me to get to this point with Team Penske and being able to sort it out with the best of the best.”
Yet the aggression needed to deliver in key moments has still been there.
His four wins this year came via opportunistic luck at Barber and Toronto, and then two would-not-be-denied moves on his two champion teammates at Mid-Ohio and Gateway.
Newgarden dropped a wicked fade on Power on the backstraight at Mid-Ohio and then delivered the defining move of the season, the sidepod-banging dive on Pagenaud at Gateway, which swung the title 25 points in one move. Newgarden won the title by just 13 points.
He bounced back after that mistake in Watkins Glen, leaving the pits, responding in a way worthy of the title at Sonoma.
And when Pagenaud beat him to the Sonoma win on Sunday, Newgarden admitted he was “steaming” - but that speaks to his competitive fire, and was good to see.
HOW HE CARRIES THE TORCH
Newgarden begins his championship-winning media tour this week. It might be the accolades from his peers and contemporaries - plenty of tweets and other social media posts came in on Sunday night - that showcase the type of person he is, there for his family, his friends and teammates. He’s even got a wedding to officiate of a couple friends in the coming days.
His emotion Sunday came from thanking his family, mainly his parents Joey and Tina, his girlfriend Ashley Welch and his siblings.
“I come from great parents to start with. I’ve got great, great people that guide me in life. I think me and my two sisters did. So that makes a world of a difference with whatever you’re choosing to do in the world,” he said.
Shaw, who helped put Newgarden on the map a decade ago, summarized Newgarden’s appreciation of others.
“He really is a very special person, intelligent and thoughtful, so it’s been very satisfying to see him capitalize on his strengths and continue to develop his skills,” Shaw said. “A lot of people have helped him along the way but he never fails to acknowledge anyone who has helped him achieve some of his goals.”
Many other columns have been written in the now 24-plus hours since Newgarden won the title Sunday afternoon about his role - and IndyCar’s - in being the champion and embracing the task ahead. He’s fully down for it.
“I’ll carry the flag happily. I love the IndyCar Series. I think it’s got the whole world in front of it,” he said. “It can go so many good ways. I’ll do the best that I can to help spread the word and show people how great this sport is.”
The greatness for Josef Newgarden in IndyCar may have only just begun.