Team Penske Star Josef Newgarden Isn’t Slowing Down

With this year’s IndyCar season upended by COVID-19 — and the Detroit Grand Prix now canceled — the ambitious driver will have to wait for his shot at a third title in four seasons
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In three years with Team Penske, Josef Newgarden has won 11 races — more than any other IndyCar driver — and two IndyCar Series championships. “If being the face of IndyCar means that I’m the most successful on the racetrack…then I love it,” he says. // Photograph by EmotiveImage

Josef Newgarden, a winner in last year’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and titlist in the season’s NTT IndyCar Series championship, spent a large share of the winter obsessing over a new equipment requirement for his super-sensitive racecar. The part is the Aeroscreen, a cowling of titanium framework and PPG Opticor “advanced transparency” material that is mandated for all 2020 entries to better protect drivers from crash impacts and flying debris.

Weighing 45 pounds, the Aeroscreen is heavy enough to change the racecar’s balance. Newgarden — star of Team Penske who has won 14 races in eight seasons, 11 since joining IndyCar’s premier outfit in 2017 — hunkered down at team headquarters near Charlotte and practiced assiduously on the simulator that Chevrolet built there. It’s the motorsports equivalent of the symphonic Newberry Memorial Organ at Yale University and gives the feel of every track on the season’s schedule. The champ also tested the shield for real at Florida’s Sebring International Raceway in January.

“There’s a new challenge for everybody with this windscreen,” Newgarden says by phone shortly before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is canceled and COVID-19 shutdowns upend the series schedule. “Whoever can figure that out the quickest is probably going to find the most success.”

With the first six races — including the Indianapolis 500 — canceled or postponed because of the pandemic, Newgarden was looking to the new series opener, the Detroit Grand Prix, as the first real test of the new configuration. For any of Team Penske’s three regular drivers (four at Indy), there’s extra symbolic value to winning in Penske Corporation founder and chairman Roger Penske’s city, and Newgarden — along with Simon Pagenaud and Will Power — had hoped to wear the laurels here this year. But shortly before press time, that race was called off too.

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Amid intense offseason training sessions, Newgarden squeezed in a wedding. Here he celebrates at 2019 victory with now-wife Ashley Newgarden. // Photograph by EmotiveImage

Looking for his third series championship in four seasons, Newgarden expects to solve the restated equation sooner rather than later. The Aeroscreen shifts weight forward on a 1,570-pound IndyCar just a tad, and the center of gravity creeps upward. The trick is to master this rebalancing and prevent any twitching on the racetrack and avoid any mishaps. 

Whereas in the past, legends like Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, and Eddie Sachs squandered many racecars in their quest to reach the victory stripe, NBC sports analyst Robin Miller explains, Newgarden is a driver who can slew his car through a corner if necessary but is much more of a scientist who locks frontal lobes with race engineer Gavin Ward on vital precepts. “Josef really understands what a chassis does,” Miller says. “The more you can understand and adapt, the faster you’re gonna go.”

It appears that Newgarden goes fast all the time. Between offseason training sessions, he got married and went off to a leafy place for a while. But there were also sponsor and media obligations. Precise by nature, he tries to excel at these aspects of his job, too. In so doing, he gives an irresistible face to IndyCar.

“If being the face of IndyCar means that I’m the most successful on the racetrack, able to put up the best numbers year after year, then I love it,” he says.

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Josef Newgarden has a reputation for being as in tune with his car mentally as he is physically. “Josef really understands what a chassis does,” NBC sports anallyst Robin Miller says. // Photograph by EmotiveImage

Recognizing Newgarden’s talent early, when he drove for team owner Sarah Fisher and then for Ed Carpenter, Miller used to hector Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric, asking, “How can you watch this guy race and not have him under contract?”

“He crashes a lot,” they said.

“He has no money,” Miller rejoined. “He’s trying to keep up with you guys.”

Despite smoking a few retaining walls, Newgarden, a native of greater Nashville, posted strong overall results in five seasons with those lesser teams. Disinclined to waste the good opportunity in 2017 with a Penske-perfect car and Chevy power, he swept to four wins — on an oval, a street circuit, and two permanent road-racing tracks — en route to the series championship.

“A trait you need to have, specifically at this level, driving an IndyCar, is being able to control your adrenaline and perform under pressure,” he says. “At the end of day, this sport is all about results.”

Last year on Belle Isle, with the unique doubleheader weekend, he put down the fastest lap in the first round, led the most laps in the 75-minute timed race after a lightning delay, and claimed victory. For the second round, he qualified on pole and appeared primed for twin trophies, but he soon surrendered the lead to Scott Dixon and only completed 49 of 70 laps, receiving credit for 19th position.

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Newgarden stands with the NTT IndyCar Championship trophy on Sept. 22, 2019, after clinching his second title in three years with his performance at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. // Photograph by EmotiveImage

“I love Detroit,” he says, noting the city’s changes for the good since his first race here in 2012. Yet he respects the intensity of the racing format and the rigors of the 2.35-mile, 14-turn course. “It’s a full street fight. It’s some of my favorite IndyCar racing. You’re really wrestling the racecar throughout the whole track. You’ve got a lightweight racecar that’s trying to be contained by these concrete barriers. It is a complete challenge to hustle the car and try and get the most speed out of it through the corners without throwing it into the wall every five seconds.”

Having proved himself capable of manhandling the car if necessary, Newgarden still shows a natural graciousness as soon he takes the checkered flag. West Coast public relations guy and racing guru Doug Stokes likens him to Briggs Cunningham, the aristocratic sportsman who fielded Chrysler-powered racers in the 1950s and later established Team Cunningham as a dominant force: a precursor of Team Penske. “He seems to have an elegance that’s a
little different than some of the other drivers,” Stokes says.

Whether it’s getting the best result from a photo shoot or from a 700-horsepower racecar, his elegance is expressed first through precision. “Everything matters in racing when it comes down to ultimate performance,” Newgarden says, drawing the analogy of a waiter tending to 10 tables at once and still getting all orders to the kitchen on time.

“That can relate to anything in life,” he says. “It’s all about details.”

Driving lessons with Josef Newgarden:

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Josef Newgarden, a winner at last year’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, was eying a repeat in the home city of Team Penske owner Roger Penske before the race was called off. // Photograph by EmotiveImage

>> “I would say the No. 1 thing that most drivers aren’t great at on the road is looking ahead. Most people tend get fixated on something right in front of them. When you drive racecars for a living, you learn to be 10 steps ahead — or 10 cars up the road.”

>> “It’s really important in daily driving that you’re always ahead of what’s happening. If you’re just fixated in the car in front, you might not realize that there’s a problem with the car in front of that.”

>> “The more ahead you are as a driver, the more you’re looking up the road and not directly in front of you, the better chance you have to make the right decisions when it comes to not only safety but maybe even efficiency in driving and where you want to go.”