Josef Newgarden’s career was almost over before it even got started in 2010. After succeeding in Skip Barber Racing School’s series, Newgarden relocated to England and impressed in British Formula Ford, placing second with nine wins in 25 races.
He caught the attention of a new investor who would fund a move to British Formula 3 for 2010. “I had a contract signed, had a seat made, was literally sitting in the car at test day, and no check cleared,” he explained in a phone interview.
After his investor vanished, Newgarden was lost. Then the Carlin team offered him a last-minute slot in the inaugural season of GP3. It was a step up from British Formula 3 and one that, perhaps, the young Tennessean was not ready for. Hampered additionally by engine reliability issues he finished a lowly 18th. “It ended up becoming one of the toughest years of my junior career,” said Newgarden. “After that I felt like I was probably done racing.”
Luckily, Newgarden was thrown another lifeline, this time by Sam Schmidt, a Indy Racing League driver turned team owner. In 2011, Newgarden debuted in Indy Lights, dominating his rookie season with five wins and ten podiums in 14 races. This propelled him to a IndyCar seat the following year, and Newgarden hasn’t looked back, claiming two IndyCar championships in a three-year span since joining Team Penske in 2017.
The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
What lessons did you learn from that GP3 season and how did that help you with Indy Lights and IndyCar?
In some ways I was very lucky to have that difficult experience with things that were outside of my control and the team’s control. It was interesting as a young driver to be immersed in an environment you didn’t really want to be in. It teaches you some toughness and how to cope in difficult situations. I’ve been able to carry that through to my professional career and learn how to manage difficulties within a group and how to plan to get to the next part of a season or next part of life.
What is the biggest difference between a smaller team like Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and a giant like Team Penske?
There’s so many. When I started in IndyCar, SFHR was the smallest team on the grid. We didn’t even have an engine lease a month before the season was going to start [laughs].
With a team like SFHR, there’s really no resources to rely on. You’re not going to the shaker and testing dampers, you’re not going to the wind tunnel and figuring out aerodynamics, you don’t have the latest parts, you don’t have a huge engineering staff, you don’t have people running reports that you need. These little things add up at the end of the day. Getting all the information and distilling it down correctly so that you can intake it and improve, that was missing for me when I was younger.
So I learned how to survive on my own in a lot of ways, and it helped me thrive in a bigger environment. Now I’m self-sufficient and can help lead a team. I don’t have to rely on the people around me to give me what I need, I can direct more.
You’ve racked up 18 wins in IndyCar so far. Which has been your favorite?
My first one, without a doubt. You never forget that first victory. You’ve been working for years to not only get to IndyCar but figure out how to win a race, so that first win in 2015 was a very big deal. I loved having it at Barber [Motorsports Park], it’s one of my favorite tracks on the schedule, so that one stands out. The win at Texas Motor Speedway [in 2019] was also very memorable, especially after having a big crash there [in 2016] that almost took me out of the car for a race. Thankfully it didn’t, but being able to come back and conquer that place was big for me.
After winning two championships in three years, can you still be satisfied with your second place finish in 2020?
Second in the championship was a very strong position for us but it’s definitely not satisfying. The only things that are satisfying to us are wins or championships. That’s what we strive to do.
Do you look back on certain moments and wish you or the team had done something differently?
I’m really proud of our efforts. We had a consistent year that did not produce a lot of mistakes. We just got bit a couple times from things outside of our control. There wasn’t much that I would ask differently from the team. Pitstops were almost flawless every time. Tim Cindic, who I consider one of the best on pit lane to call strategy, was really on point. Ill-timed cautions really hurt us the most. Sometimes in IndyCar you just don’t get the momentum or the right things in a race to fall your way and that’s just how it goes.
During a season, do you look back at what went right or wrong in a race, or do you just move on and think about the next race?
We analyze everything to a T. We’ll review immediately after an event, and then table it and when we come the next year we’ll review again. We try and learn from everything, positive or negative. We want to make sure we don’t make a mistake twice. We’re very analytical. I am personally, and as a team we make sure that we’re honest and trying to always get better, not just look forward and not learn from the past.
What was the most difficult part of the 2020 season and the adjustments caused by the pandemic?
For me it was the connectivity. We have great access to each other nowadays, especially with Verizon providing us with BlueJeans and their communications apps. It’s incredible how connected you can be, but there is something to say for having that in-person interaction with the team. I wasn’t able to visit the race shop periodically throughout the year and just check in. There’s that tangible connection that you need with your team and I felt like that piece was noticeably missing. You’d see everyone on race weekends but trying to keep up the flow or the energy in between events was harder.
When I spoke with Felix Rosenqvist about the aeroscreen, he said he enjoyed the challenge of the increased temperatures. How was it adjusting to the aeroscreen and can you relate to Felix’s assessment?
I can definitely relate. I prefer to have a more grueling environment physically: I put a lot of emphasis on my fitness so just making it more difficult to cope was a positive to separate myself from the pack. But there is a limit. IndyCar worked really hard to provide solutions and we have gotten things in a window now where they are reasonable for the entire field. But no doubt, it’s harder now and the cars are more demanding.
Do those tubes connected to the top of your helmet help?
Everything that we tried had an effect, some came with negatives. The ducting in the helmet meant that at the end of the race you’d notice that you picked up more debris inside the helmet. But airflow was increased, either through the nose ducting or the shock cover ducts or the helmet ducts. We’re working with what we have at the moment, in that the chassis is set. We can only change so much. Once we get a new chassis in the future, they can really improve how they pipe everything in.
As a fan, I love watching the Penske Games that Team Penske posts on YouTube. It seems like you and the other drivers have fun doing the challenges. What have been some of the best moments from the games?
[Laughs] It’s always very fun when we get to film those. The dodgeball stuff was pretty interesting, everybody wanted to just keep playing. They only had one game planned and we ended up playing four of them. And I enjoyed the obstacle course: they rented this [blow-up] obstacle course for us to run through.
Are you guys competitive or is it just light-hearted fun?
It’s stupid competitive. It’s just in the DNA of race car drivers, but anything that you do, you have to win. Everyone is trying to cheat or figure out a way to get an advantage if they’re not good enough at it. Everyone just wants to win so it creates a tense environment. It’s fun and everyone’s having a good time, but everyone’s very serious, trying to figure out how to be the best at everything.
You’re into cars and had a car detailing service as a teenager to earn some spare cash. Have you bought any of your childhood dream cars since becoming a professional driver?
My dream car growing up was an E46 M3. I didn’t like the E92 version of the M3, but when they came out with the M4 I really loved it. When I won my first IndyCar race in 2015, I said, “You know what, I think I can buy my first car.” And that M4 was the first car I ever purchased personally, so I’ll keep it forever.
Then I have a couple Chevrolet vehicles. I’ve got a C8 Corvette and a Camaro ZL1 1LE. I’m thinking about the next car that I can get. I’d like to get something with a European flair to it, maybe Italian. I’d like to find something completely different from what I’ve got now.
You played baseball and basketball as a kid, but what drew you to racing? When did you decide to focus all of your efforts on racing?
I always wanted to race, ever since I was really young. I watched it on TV and I liked everything: stock cars, IndyCar, Formula 1. I was most drawn to open-wheeled racing. I liked that open-wheeled cars looked different, didn’t seem like something you could just buy, like a dream almost. I played baseball and basketball, which was a lot more accessible, as a kid. I liked the sports, but I didn’t love them. I was always begging to go go-kart racing.
I couldn’t break through with my parents until I was 13. But once my dad got on board with it and we found a go-kart track, we didn’t really look back. I was pretty good and I had a complete passion for it. I loved everything about racing: the strategy, how you drive the kart, how you set the kart up, how it’s built, the engines. It quickly became a passion that I knew I could do for the rest of my life if I had an opportunity, compared to baseball or basketball.
Was the dream initially F1? Had you considered IndyCar when you were karting?
Kind of both. I wanted to go to F1 when I was younger. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to go to IndyCar but F1 seemed like a great place to start. Looking back on it, it’s really hard to take that path. There’s not a lot of accessibility for drivers, especially American drivers, to find the funds and compete and really get a fair shot at F1. So I always wanted to pursue Formula 1 and IndyCar. And it wouldn’t stop there. I was interested in stock car racing, prototype racing, Le Mans. There’s still a lot on my list that I want to do.
Do you want to branch out to other series now or are you waiting till you’re done with IndyCar?
I really want to, it’s just hard to get a parallel program going. I’m working on figuring out how I can get into some other cars while running IndyCar. Hopefully soon I can make that happen.
Your dad has said that he wanted you to attend college, since he hadn’t finished himself. How did your parents balance education and racing as you progressed through the junior categories?
I actually stopped physically going to high school at the end of my sophomore year, once I got into car racing. Then I moved to England, in order to take advantage of this scholarship opportunity that I had, and I had to finish my high school degree through the University of Miami with their online program. I really started getting further up the ranks, so all the energy went towards trying to legitimately make a professional racing career instead of picking up some college courses. It was a critical time to focus fully on racing, and that’s what I did.
A lot of guys have deferred opportunities and a few guys have done college alongside a career that turns professional, but it gets difficult. My game plan was to give it a couple years out of high school, and if it didn’t work out I would’ve gone back and gotten my degree.
But the knock-on effect of racing is that it’s such a business-oriented sport—it’s way more business than sport, I’d put the split at 70/30—that you end up learning so much about so many different areas in business that it’s almost an education in itself. You start learning about sales or marketing or communications and you’re able to really thrive in those environments even without a specific degree in one of those facets of business. It’s allowed me to explore other interests within business in motorsport and even to start some business opportunities myself, so it’s not something I regret.
Photo credits: Team Penske