The Racing Capital
of the World
May 28, 2017
May 15, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Josef Newgarden was already the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion when he arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his first Indianapolis 500 last year, but his time on track really helped him come of age. He was among the fastest drivers during the week of practice and made the “Fast Nine” on Pole Day.
The race, though, was a different matter. He started seventh on the grid and hoped to find the speed that made him fast in practice, but it wasn’t there. He dropped out of the race after completing 161 laps with a mechanical issue and finished 25th.
“I was pleased during the entire month,” Newgarden said. “We were great. We had all of the performance for the entire month, but the shame of it was we didn’t have it on Race Day. We were out to lunch on Race Day. We weren’t competitive in traffic. We couldn’t run with anybody, and we couldn’t make it to the end. We had a failure with 20 laps to go, and we didn’t even finish the race. Not to perform well in it but to also not finish it, that’s never fun during the Month of May after you spent that whole month and your guys are gutted because every guy on every team puts so much into it.
“If you never finish the race, it’s tough on everybody. It was a tough year in that respect we didn’t get the Race Day right, but we did have a great month. There is a lot to build on, but we have a pretty solid platform to build on.”
Newgarden is back for his second Indianapolis 500 and showed impressive speed during the opening days of practice and qualifications. As teams begin to prepare for their qualifying setups beginning Thursday with additional boost on the engines added for “Fast Friday” and this weekend’s qualifications, Newgarden is hopeful he can be a contender for another prime starting position.
Newgarden, from Hendersonville, Tenn., also hopes to restore young American talent to the front of the field for both the Indy 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“It’s crucial,” Newgarden said. “You have to have Americans doing well, particularly young Americans. I think that is great to see young guys doing well. You want to see young talent come into the sport now, and that is starting to happen now, particularly in IndyCar. We have a lot of guys that are strong. What (JR) Hildebrand did in 2011 was amazing. It got a lot of people fired up. It was a pretty big moment. Whenever we have guys like that doing well and almost winning the thing, that was important for everybody.
“A lot of people ask the question do I feel a lot of pressure to do well or perform better because I’m an American. I don’t think that is the case. For me, I don’t feel that pressure, but I also recognize people want to root for someone on their home turf. You want to see the American Boy – or the American Girl – do well.”
Last year, Newgarden had another young American driver as his teammate in Bryan Clauson of Noblesville, Ind. Although Clauson is not in this year’s race, the two drivers worked well together in 2012.
“I saw Bryan’s car, so I know what he had underneath his car,” Newgarden said. “He performed so well during the month, and then it went sour in the race. That’s a shame. That event is tough. If you have a good month and you think you are the guy and you do well, and then to have a horrible Race Day is all for nothing. It was a tough month. We were both rookies – Bryan Clauson and me – and we were developing. This year I think we can have a breakthrough year and the potential to do very well, not just during the month but in the race itself.”
Newgarden, like most drivers who have practiced this week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has found it important to pace himself to help get a solid car for the race before starting to concentrate on qualifying speed.
“Pacing of this month was very important,” he said. “I think a lot of people know that. Everyone that runs here knows it. Last year, that was probably the biggest unknown for me. I didn't understand, you know, the pace of it, the time that it takes to get through all the practices, how qualifying works, and on to the race. It's an endurance event, if anything. There's a lot that goes into it. You can't focus on one part of it. Your central focus is definitely the race, obviously. That's the most important thing.
“How do you build your program around focusing on the race while working on each part of the month? You obviously have to work each part of the month with practice, and you have to qualify and qualify well. Then get in the car and prep for the race, practicing for the race, and then the race.
“There are all those processes: How do you go through all those while keeping the central focus on the race? That's a difficult thing to do mentally and collectively as a team. That's what you've got to do, figure out how to pace yourself throughout the month and not get wrapped up in all the head games of who's quick, and when and how. And what's going on. I think, for us we need to know exactly what we've got to do. And that's be strong in the race. What we weren't last year, we weren't strong in the race, and this year, that's what we've got to be.”
Newgarden is a perfect example of how the Mazda Road to Indy can develop young talent and prepare it for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
After winning the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship, Newgarden moved up to the IZOD IndyCar Series for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012, including spending time as the fastest on the speed charts during the week of practice for the 96th Indianapolis 500.
The Indianapolis 500 is the pinnacle of all auto racing, and the IZOD IndyCar Series is the premier open-wheel racing series in North America. But in order to get to the top, a driver must climb the first rung on the ladder. And for Newgarden, 22, it began as a 13-year-old at New Castle Motorsports Park in Indiana. He would go on to win several national championships in karting before moving up to the Skip Barber National Series for Racer of Tomorrow LTD in 2007. He had two wins, three poles, four podiums and three fastest laps in 14 starts. He also finished second in the Skip Barber Southern Regional Series with three wins, three poles and 10 podiums in 14 starts that year.
He climbed the ladder to finish second in the Skip Baber National Series for Racer of Tomorrow LTD in 2008 and was awarded the Team USA Scholarship to compete in the International Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in England. In 2009, Newgarden finished second in MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain with nine wins, four poles and 16 podiums. After a season in GP3 for Carlin Motorsports in 2012, he moved up to the Firestone Indy Lights series with team owner Sam Schmidt and scored five wins and 10 podiums finishes in 14 races to win the championship.
Newgarden’s reward was a ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series on Sarah Fisher’s team. And he has become the latest poster boy of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system.
“The Mazda Road to Indy is huge,” Newgarden said. “It’s pretty vital for the IndyCar Series. The Mazda Road to Indy is very clear; it’s very defined. It’s a path that is set out for young drivers. If they want to be an IndyCar driver, they have a clear path, and that is the Mazda Road to Indy. This year Tristan Vautier won the Lights championship in 2012, and he is up to IndyCar now with Sam Schmidt. That is a big deal.
“We have to get young talent moving up. That is hard because you can’t do that every year, but to have a series like Firestone Indy Lights is super-important. You have to have the feeder series. I would like to actually see Firestone Indy Lights actually become more of a stand-alone race. Maybe one day we get IndyCar drivers that drive a Firestone Indy Lights race the same time they drive an IndyCar race. That would be pretty cool. I don’t know if that will happen, but I think it would be pretty neat.”
Newgarden is the next young driver who hopes to become an American star in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Looking to build a team for the future, Fisher and team co-owner Wink Hartman knew Newgarden was exactly the type of driver around which to build their team. He is good-looking, articulate, young and quite talented. His Firestone Indy Lights victories in 2011 included the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and by lapping the field to win on the oval at New Hampshire International Speedway.
“Josef’s portfolio is diverse,” Fisher said. “He won on every kind of circuit they had and lapped the field at Loudon and won the Freedom 100. To have all those credentials that he has and to do well on the track and be an American is a pretty spectacular portfolio. Our brand is certainly the ‘team next door.’ That is who we are. We have the family culture. We are a small team, still. Being all-American is still important to us with some of our partners and all of the domestic events and the sponsorship side. We have carried that brand forward, and to put a driver in the car who is all-American and has all those other assets really supports the package and what this brand is all about.”
The Mazda Road to Indy is stocked with young talent, all hoping to one day achieve the goal of a full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“A driver like Zach Veach, his career path is definitely determined,” Newgarden said. “Being involved in the Mazda Road to Indy it is clear. That is what is great. You can look at young guys and ask where are they going to go? But it is clear where they are going to go. You know what they want to do.
“There is a lot of interesting talent in the Mazda Road to Indy right now. I really like Spencer Pigot. Jack Hawksworth, even though he is not an American boy, he is very, very impressive. Same thing with Gabby Chaves. Zach Veach is a young guy that I look at and think, ‘These guys can make it.’ They could get to the top and make it in IndyCar. You don’t have just one guy you are looking at – I’m looking at six or seven guys that could break through to the IndyCar Series, and that is pretty cool. That is what you want to have.
“The Mazda Road to Indy helped me get here, and you want to see it help other drivers get here, too.”