Exclusive INDYCAR Nation News

Newgarden on the rise

by
Kyle Lavigne
| Sep 09, 2011

Josef Newgarden hasn’t officially clinched the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights crown, but that’s but a formality. Ahead by 90 points with two races remaining, simply showing up at Kentucky should seal the deal. “It’s nice because this is what we set out to do,” said the Lights’ champion to be. “We didn’t just set out to win races or do a good job, we wanted to win a championship. That was the aim and nothing else was going to be satisfying. It’s a big thing for me, and I’m really happy for all the guys (on the team). Obviously, it’s a championship for the team and everyone who put in the work, not just for the guys who work on my car but all the guys who work on all four of the cars really. Everyone works together and it’s a big group effort.”

This comes on the heels of perhaps his best race of the year. After qualifying troubles landed him 14th on the grid, he used calculated, mistake-free driving to finish second behind Gustavo Yacaman. “It was really nice to have almost everything go right in the race and end the weekend like that,” said the 20-year-old. “I was really happy for the boys. Obviously, there were a lot of mistakes from other drivers. It was difficult to see, Conor (Daly) and Esteban (Guerrieri) had troubles, but certainly that just shows the nature of that track, and if we go back there that’s going to be the storyline for years to come. It’s a very difficult track to master and anything could happen on any time on it.”

Despite their struggles through the weekend, his confidence never wavered. Newgarden even thought a victory could have been possible. “We were very quick in the first practice right out of the gate, but then those troubles started happening from the second practice and into qualifying and even into the warmup. I knew if we could just get everything right and get the luck going on our side again, we would have a really good shot at maybe getting on the podium or possibly winning that race.”

But, once the challenges of the track presented themselves, Newgarden showed great poise and maturity in not pushing the envelope and took what the race gave him. “As the race started to develop, it was interesting because everyone started making mistakes, and then as soon as I saw Esteban had made a mistake and was out of it, it was almost a random thought in my mind that I just needed to finish the race where I was at,” he explained. “I was so satisfied with the points I had picked up, I was really okay with just finishing second, which is a bit odd. But, when you’re going for a championship, your mindset can change.”

Newgarden acknowledges that winning the championship is of the utmost importance. “Certainly, that’s our number one goal. I’d rather win (the championship) at the end of the year then try to just go for a win and make a mistake and lose out because of something stupid like that.“

He added that, though it is possible to move up the ladder without winning titles, doing so is a big help. “Certainly, winning a title is the best way, I think, to receive respect from people. But, it’s also going to make it a little bit of an easier deal. The Mazda Road to Indy that’s now in place tries to help champions make it into the next level. Seeing what happens there, it could potentially help as well. I think it only brings positive things by winning a title, instead of not doing so and trying to move up.”

Teammate Guerrieri has been a difficult adversary, especially with his raw speed. Newgarden praised his talent and has enjoyed working with him “(Guerrieri) is a very good driver and he’s got a lot of years and a lot of experience under his belt. To run against someone like him is pretty cool and I’m glad I was able to work with him this year because he definitely taught me a lot, hopefully I taught him some things. But, certainly us working together have made us stronger and it feels great to beat him actually, and in the same team! Saying that, it’s been a wonderful time working with him as well.”

Newgarden has endured quite the journey to arrive at this point. The first American to win the storied Formula Ford Festival (Kent Class, 2008), he found the U.S. brought the most opportunities and returned this year after much success in Europe. “That’s really the main reason why I made the trek back over, was that the opportunity with one of the top two teams was here,” he says. “ (Michael) Andretti and (Sam) Schmidt both showed interest for this year and that was a positive thing. It definitely looked more promising than the situation over in Europe at that moment. There were some okay situations over there, but it’s really more emphasized that you need to be in the right position for any championship charge you’re going to make in Europe.”

After initially testing with Andretti Autosport, Sam Schmidt stepped up to the plate and signed the young American just before the season got under way. “I don’t really know how we pulled it off!” quipped Newgarden. “A lot of it came down to Sam, actually. He showed a leap of faith and helped me out a lot this year, and it’s been great working with him and his team. He’s done a lot for me so far and he’s really t helped make this year happen. A lot of things came together right at the last minute. I never actually signed until three weeks before St. Pete. So, it came right down to the wire, which it normally does for a season!”
 
The combination has paid great dividends, to say the least. “I’m so satisfied now, looking in hindsight, that I was able to secure a seat with this group because it’s blown me away,” said an exultant Newgarden. “It’s definitely more than I thought it would be from the beginning of the year. I’m just so elated that I’ve been involved with them over this year now and that we’ve had so much success together.”

He is also pleased with the role the Mazda Road to Indy plays and believes it can be a very strong tool for up-and-comers. “It’s so much more of a business than it is a sport nowadays that it really needs to be the emphasis for all drivers coming up through the ranks. And, you can see that. I think they have a lot of seminars now, they have a lot of access to certain people that you can get in touch with and get involved with and try to learn from,” he commented. “I think that’s what they’re trying to implement now, which is great because certainly now, with the economic conditions, it’s so crucial to have a strong understanding and strong presence on that side of the sport. I only see positive things for the ladder system and I hope it continues to grow and improve with everything they’re trying to do for the younger generation.”

With the championship all but clinched, the focus now turns to when we’ll see Newgarden in an IndyCar. And, though everyone is interested to hear if and when that will happen, not even Newgarden is certain of the future. “I’m actually not sure, it’s a good question,” he laughed. “It’s one that everyone wants to know now, actually one everyone’s been wanting to know it for quite some time now, oddly enough. Certainly, if this championship’s wrapped up soon, everyone’s really going to want to know! I don’t know myself. It’s a little bit difficult; I think everyone’s got a lot on their plate right now. With the new package that’s coming in, there are a lot of things happening with the series. It’s not just about drivers finding a ride. I think there’s a lot more elements in the year to come.”

Depending on what’s available, he may even wait on moving up. “I can tell you what, I’m not interested in just becoming an IndyCar driver, that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to just be in the IndyCar Series. I want to be a successful driver in that series. I want to win races and I want to win titles. If the right situation isn’t present, then possibly moving up is not the right move. That’s definitely the way I would look at it.”

Still, if he had his way, he’d get all the details finalized as quickly as possible. “It’s a little difficult to tell, but I’d certainly like to make something happen sooner than later. Getting in a situation and getting set in with whoever I’m going to be with and hopefully getting a good testing program in place is probably one of the most important things before going into a season. If we can make something like that happen sooner than later, that would be very good. We’re working on it now, I can say that. We’ve been working on it all year.”

Though he does have other career goals, the main focus right now is with INDYCAR. “INDYCAR is really exciting right now. I think a lot of the things that are going on in the series right now are great. I got to tell you, I love being a part of it. I think it’s an incredible group and I love the whole series in general. But, it can almost be a platform to other things. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I’d just like to try my hand in a lot of other things as well. I wouldn’t even rule out NASCAR or something like that. There are a lot of things that I’d like to try in my career. I wouldn’t pin it down to one thing. But, at the moment, I think INDYCAR is very much in the forefront of our plans.”



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