Over the last few years of NTT IndyCar Series racing, one man, in particular, has risen to become one of the leading contenders in the championship; establishing himself as one of the best drivers in the United States and, potentially, the world at this moment in time.
Twenty-eight-year-old Josef Newgarden from Tennessee made his IndyCar Series debut in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and would soon begin to underline himself as a star of the future. After a handful of years with numerous flashes of brilliance, Newgarden would stand on top of an IndyCar podium for the first time at Barber Motorsports Park in 2015. He would follow that up with two further victories for the team, now owned by Ed Carpenter, during the next two years, earning himself a spectacular finish of fourth place in the standings at the end of the 2016 season.
Newgarden’s results in his first few years of IndyCar racing earned him the chance of a lifetime; a race seat with the famous Team Penske. Josef made his debut for Roger Penske‘s squad at the start of the 2017 season and would go on to reward ‘The Captain’ for signing him.
Newgarden’s debut season with Penske was stellar. Showing speed at every type of track on the calendar, Josef would pick up victories at Barber Motorsports Park, as well as the street circuit in Toronto and the oval of Gateway Motorsports Park. A second-place finish at the season finale at Sonoma Raceway was enough to clinch Josef his first IndyCar Series championship trophy, beating his team-mate and defending champion Simon Pagenaud as well as the likes of Scott Dixon in the process; a massively impressive performance in his first year with Penske.
Since then, Newgarden has remained a consistent threat week in, week out. Newgarden remained in contention for the 2018 championship right up until the final race of the season, winning three races in the process. Sadly though, he would take only fifth place in the standings by the end of the year.
So far in 2019, Newgarden has started off in almost the strongest way possible. Four races have passed and Josef has yet to finish outside of the top four. He kicked off the year with a win at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with Josef executing a fantastic race strategy to get the victory. The next race saw him one step further down on the podium, finishing in second-place to Colton Herta at the Circuit of the Americas after starting seventh.
The third race of the season in Alabama looked to be where Newgarden’s good results would come to an end, with Josef being eliminated in the first round of qualifying and being forced to start the race in sixteenth. Despite this, Newgarden would charge through the field in the race to take an eventual finish of fourth place; a fantastic recovery drive that saw him rewarded with yet more precious championship points. Another podium would come his way the following week at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, with Josef finishing in a strong second place behind the dominant winner, Alexander Rossi.
Josef’s superb start to the season has put him atop of the championship tables heading into the all-important month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Penske driver currently holds a lead of twenty-eight points over Alexander Rossi and is hoping that a brace of strong finishes on the road course and the speedway at Indianapolis will aid his effort to secure a second-career IndyCar championship.
Heading into IndyCar’s most important few weeks and the biggest race of the season, the Indianapolis 500, Josef was able to take some time out of his preparations to answer a few questions for The Checkered Flag‘s Jordan Groves.
Here, the 2017 IndyCar champion discussed a range of topics, including his season so far, his hopes for the rest of the year as well as his career pre-IndyCar, where he raced in championships such as British Formula Ford and the GP3 Series before moving back to the United States to win the 2011 Indy Lights championship.
In the first four races, you have yet to finish outside of the top four. It’s been your best start to an IndyCar season yet. How important was it for you and the team to kick-off 2019 with a win straight out the gate at St. Pete?
The team puts in so much work in the off-season to get ready for the next year. Starting that strong at St. Pete was so great because it really showcased how much effort has been put in by everyone at Team Penske. Getting that first win of the year, and especially at St. Pete, felt SO good but I’m really proud of how we’ve shown up to compete at every race this year. We’ve had some bad luck but the team has bounced back in every instance and we’ve been able to secure some solid finishes.
St. Petersburg was somewhat of a strategic masterclass from yourself and the team. How difficult was it to execute the plan and what were the toughest obstacles you faced during the race?
I put a lot of trust in what Gavin [Ward – engineer], Tim [Cindric – team president and Newgarden’s strategist] and the entire team are telling me from the timing stand. St. Pete is a difficult circuit, particularly when it comes to overtaking… We knew we had solid pace, we just needed to find the track position and thanks to the strategy we were able to get out front and stay there.
You finished in second place at both COTA and Long Beach, yet on both occasions, you commented on how disappointed you were. In races such as though, how quickly are you able to put aside the disappointment of coming second and focus on the bigger picture championship-wise?
Winning is obviously our goal at every race and not achieving that is always a disappointment. This series is so competitive, you really have to win races to compete for the championship, and when you miss out on those wins you know that could hurt you later in the year. That being said, I’d say that disappointment goes away pretty quickly… standing on an INDYCAR podium is always a great experience!
Looking back, you started off your career, like many other single-seater racers in America, racing in Skip Barber. After a couple of years, you came across the Atlantic to compete in British Formula Ford. What made you make the decision to come to the UK to race?
In 2008, I was so lucky to be offered the Team USA scholarship which brought us over to the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy events. Those are two incredibly prestigious races so the decision to come and compete was a no-brainer. It was an opportunity to come and compete against many of the best young open-wheel drivers in the world and most importantly, learn. We had great cars at both events and I’m really proud of the success we achieved. Without that opportunity, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.
After finishing runner-up in Formula Ford in 2009, you moved up to the GP3 series for 2010. Were your sights set on Formula One at that point? What made you decide to go back to America to race in Indy Lights the following year?
I think every young racer has their eyes on Formula 1, so yes, it was definitely something I wanted to pursue. But to be honest, I’ve always wanted to drive everything… and most importantly, I wanted to be a professional racing driver. That overarching goal is what brought me back to the US. I had a great opportunity to come and compete for wins in Indy Lights with a very strong team [Sam Schmidt Motorsports].
You have commented before that you would be interested in making the move to Formula 1 in the future. Have you had serious talks with teams about that possibility yet? Or do you still feel as though you have a lot left to accomplish in IndyCar?
As I mentioned, I’d love to drive EVERYTHING. Stock cars, sports cars, INDYCAR, F1… I love competing and driving race cars. Sure, Formula 1 would be an incredible opportunity if it ever came to be, but INDYCAR is where I am and there’s a lot I want to accomplish here. I’m incredibly blessed to be driving for Team Penske, and I plan on doing that for as long as Roger will have me.
As you just alluded to, you’ve often spoken about how you want to try “every form of motorsport”. You even tried RallyX on Ice last year. Realistically, what’s next on the horizon for you? IMSA in the Penske Acura? A NASCAR race in a Penske Ford?
That’s a great question! I honestly don’t know the answer… right now I’m really focused on what we need to do with our INDYCAR program. As you said, I’d love to drive everything. It’d be incredible to get to compete in every one of the series that Roger fields cars in, hopefully, I’m here long enough to earn that opportunity!
Having raced in both Europe and in the States, you have gone up against some of the very best drivers in motorsport right now. Of all the drivers you’ve raced, who was the toughest to go toe-to-toe with and who do you respect the most?
Man… that’s an incredibly tough question to answer. I’ve been competing with so many of these drivers for so long in various categories. Esteban Guerrieri was my teammate in Indy Lights, but also one of the toughest drivers I’ve ever gone toe-to-toe with. I have a lot of respect for him.
Nowadays, to be honest, the INDYCAR Series is jam-packed with talent, many of which I competed with in Europe. You look at guys like Will Power and Scott Dixon, they’re legends, incredibly fast, wildly talented at every aspect of being a driver… I have tons of respect for them and you know you’ve accomplished something when you can beat them.
Looking ahead, the all-important month of May has arrived. You’ve raced in the Indianapolis 500 seven times and taken a best finish of third place. Just how much would an Indy 500 win mean to you? Are you feeling confident heading to Indy as the championship leader?
An Indy 500 win would mean the world to me for so many reasons. It’s the biggest race in the world and something I’ve been watching since I was a kid. Driving for Team Penske, it means that much more. They’ve had so much success there over the years and we all know that Indy wins mean a lot to Roger [Penske] so you definitely feel that pressure to deliver.
We’ve had a great start to the year, and momentum is definitely helpful as you head into a big month, but as they say, Indy chooses its winner. So, we’ll focus on working hard and being as prepared as possible for race day. Hopefully, when we get to those final laps we’ll be in a position for fight for the win.
In your two Indy 500 starts with Penske, you have finished the in nineteenth and eighth. Do you know what needs to be improved so that you can be fighting for the win? How much have you looked back at your team-mate Will Power’s race last year to learn about what could have been done differently?
We’ve gone over everything that we’ve done at Indy the past couple years, for sure. And I definitely looked very closely at what Will [Power] did to bring it home.
Last year, overtaking was really difficult in the race. We had great pace, we just didn’t quite have the right track position to be able to fight for the win. I’m really confident in the strategy calls that the team makes at every event, especially at Indy. Team Penske’s record at IMS speaks for itself, I know that if we’ve got the pace, they’re going to make the right calls.
Asking you what your target is for this season is pointless, as we all know you’re firmly focused on title number two. At this stage, who would you consider your biggest rivals in the title race and why?
Honestly, everyone! The INDYCAR Series is jam-packed with talent. You have to be really focused on your own performance and realize that any driver can go on a run at some point in the year and make things really difficult for you. We’ve had four races this year and four different winners. You know guys like [Alexander] Rossi, [Scott] Dixon, [Will] Power, [Ryan] Hunter-Reay, etc are always going to be up front and fighting for race wins, but honestly, the entire field is a rival.
You have to be on your A-Game every single session at every single event. It’s part of the reason I love this series so much, wins really mean a lot here, if you can go home with a win, you know you’ve really accomplished something.
The fifth round of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, will take place on Saturday, May 11. After that, preparations will begin for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, which will take place two weeks later on Sunday, May 26.