INDIANAPOLIS – Josef Newgarden just won his second NTT IndyCar Series championship this past Sunday. Both have come in the last three years, all with Team Penske. But, what if I told you that Newgarden didn’t initially think that he’d be an Indy Car driver. What if I told you that he was on track for a seat in Formula One. That was his goal at least. Towards the end of the last decade, the Tennessee native packed his bags and moved overseas to pursue his passion in motorsports and become the next American star in F1.
He lived in England and won nine times during the 2009 British Formula Ford Championship. He also competed in the Formula Palmer Audi season too in which he won two times at Brands Hatch.
He was a rising star.
Unfortunately for him, the next year is where he got himself in a crossroads. He signed on with Carlin for the 2010 GP3 season. The problem is, that was a rushed deal and he struggled. With a lack of funding to continue on for 2011, he was forced to look elsewhere.
The fall/winter of 2010, Newgarden was coming to the realization that he may have to look for a different career in something other than racing. He thought it was all over for him.
Josef Newgarden walks down pit lane before the start of this past year’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500
That’s the point of this story that shaped and turned Newgarden to a two-time series champion. Four different people that had a stake in Indy Car took chances of him, which led to where he’s at today – Team Penske.
“I think we all have — most drivers have a story that is somewhat like that at some point in their career,” Newgarden said on Tuesday. “I don’t want to single anyone out because there’s too many people that have done too much, so I don’t know want to make one person like the make-or-break guy.
“But I think probably the toughest point was at the end of 2010. It was my second year of living in England, and I had quite a tough year in the GP3 championship, which was run in Europe, and it was a last-minute deal to run that season because an investor deal fell apart at the beginning of 2010, so we had this rushed season with Carlin Racing, and it just ended up being a little bit of a bust. And at the end of 2010, I thought, that might be it. We didn’t have any more funding. We had gone pretty much as far as we could, and Europe almost broke us just because it’s a very expensive sport and trying to get the money to go racing over there continuously is tough.
“And so at the end of 2010, yeah, I was going to come back home and start thinking about plan B at that point, what was next, and we just — we ended up getting a lot of support from a couple different people, and then for sure my grandfather, my dad, they all helped make it happen.”
Newgarden, ended up in Indy Lights, a destination that he never saw coming. Beacuse of that, he singled out Sam Schmidt for taking the chance on him for 2011. See, he thought he was destined for a USF 2000 ride. Instead, Schmidt put him in one of his Indy Lights cars.
“Sam Schmidt really, he put in quite a bit to make sure that I got in an Indy Lights seat in 2011, and I did not think I was going to be racing in 2011, let alone Indy Lights,” Newgarden continued. “I thought if anything I was going to be racing in like F2000 or something like that, which was the bottom part of the ladder going to IndyCar, so I didn’t even think I’d be at the cusp of the top of the IndyCar ladder stepping up.”
Newgarden, was sensational that season too. He won his first ever race which happened to be on the streets of St. Pete to propel him to a five win season and the championship. How remarkable is it that a driver with zero past starts on any of these tracks won the title in his first try? It also showed just how talented Newgarden is and why it was a very good thing that he wasn’t on the sidelines for 2011.
With the championship, it earned him the Road to Indy scholarship which meant he would be an Indy Car driver for 2012. Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman then took the chance on him next. They were up.
“I ended up running Indy Lights in 2011, and I think that just set everything off because we won the championship that year and then that gave me the great opportunity with SFHR, which kind of brought the whole thing on.”
Newgarden, was a little slow out of the gates in 2012, but Fisher and Hartman stuck with him. He came back for 2013 and drastically improved. He went from 23rd in the final standings to 14th. He finished second in Baltimore that year to go along with earning three fifth place finishes too.
They liked him enough to bring him back for a third season the next year. He had another runner-up finish and came home 13th in the final standings.
For 2015 it all changed. Fisher and Hartman merged with Ed Carpenter Racing. They remained loyal to Newgarden though and brought him over with them. It paid off. He earned his first career win in Barber. He won again a few months later in Toronto. He was a contender and finished a career best seventh in the final standings.
From the end of 2010 looking like he would be out of racing to a multi time winner and a championship contender five years later.
2016 brought on more change as Fisher and Hartman stepped away. Carpenter, wanted Newgarden still and he stayed. That decision led to even more success. Newgarden dominated in Iowa that year and finished fourth in the final standings. His contract was now up and he had finally earned the attention of the big teams. He had an option to come back to Ed Carpenter Racing but Team Penske was calling.
It was a tough decision.
Newgarden is a loyal guy. If not for Schmidt, Fisher, Hartman and Carpenter, these teams wouldn’t even be calling. In six short years, he went from nothing to being the hottest rising star that the series had seen in quite sometime.
Newgarden, ended up choosing Penske and the rest is history.
“It’s impossible to say,” said Newgarden on where he’d be if he stayed with ECR. “I don’t know where I would be now if, say, I stayed with Ed Carpenter Racing and didn’t make the transition. I believe we still would have found a lot of success. We were finding a lot of success the year before I moved to Team Penske. We were in the championship conversation. We were in the hunt to win the Indy 500. I mean, arguably 2016 was one of my best years before moving over to Team Penske, so I don’t think it would have — I don’t know, it’s impossible to say how different it would have been, but you can’t deny that Team Penske is the benchmark. They are the team that everyone targets.
“Being in New York here, I always make the comparison that driving for Team Penske, it’s like playing for the Yankees. You’re basically competing with a dynasty here, and they’re the best to have done it and they’re the group that everyone wants to be and the group everyone wants to beat. So there’s a lot of pressure to perform in that environment.
“But on the flipside, you also know that you have the history behind you. You have the process, you have the people, you have the management, you have the ownership. You have everything in place to go and succeed and do it better than everyone else, and I think that gives you the confidence to go and be better than everybody else in a lot of ways.
“I like it. I don’t mind the pressure, but I really enjoy the confidence that the team gives you that you have everything you need.”
That decision led to a championship in his first season with Penske. He’s won 11 races and is a two time champion in three years at the helm with the storied organization. But, that 2010 season is the one that Newgarden points to in which led him to where he’s at today.
“To me the end of 2010 was like the moment where I thought everything was done.”