Two years ago, Josef Newgarden and Bryan Clauson were racing on different continents in completely different cars. Newgarden was in Europe's GP3 Series, trying to move through the development system to Formula 1. Clauson was running on America's short tracks in the three USAC national series and where ever else he could squeeze into his schedule.
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week, the two will be teammates on a two-car team at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Newgarden and Clauson are rookies and the conventional wisdom is, if you have the resources to do it, bring one rookie and one veteran to Indianapolis.
But Newgarden, with a road racing background, and Clauson, a veteran of hundreds of oval races, are the odd couple at Indy. They're turning conventional wisdom on its head.
They breezed through the rookie orientation program last week and delivered fast laps during the opening four days of practice (Newgarden was fastest on the first and third day of practice, while Clauson was just behind him). Sure, it's only practice, but it's still impressive.
IndyCar's new chassis (the Dallara DW12) has altered the racing thus far. Drivers used to complain mightily about the turbulence from an IndyCar and how it would get worse and wash out the front end toward the outside wall the closer they got to the car in front of them. The new car, on the other hand, punches a big hole in the air and cars are pulled into it the closer they get to the car in front.
Newgarden and Clauson have adapted to the draft like veterans, and the team has delivered well-balanced cars, which are still critical to the performance. They still have plenty to learn at Indianapolis but you can't discount the speed they've shown. It takes talent to be on top of the speed charts day after day.
"Josef, he's definitely fast," team co-owner Fisher said. "We've got that going for us. He's done a whole lot on the team side, too. We believe in Bryan. I have complete confidence in his credentials, talent and capabilities."
Newgarden and Clauson are beneficiaries of IndyCar's Mazda Road to Indy program. Newgarden won the Firestone Indy Lights championship and five races, including Indianapolis, last year and earned $1 million to take to an IndyCar team. Clauson has won back-to-back USAC national championships and had four top-fives in six Indy Lights races last year.
Newgarden's career in Europe began with the Team USA Scholarship, which sent him to England for the Formula Ford Festival in 2008. He won the Kent division race and it helped him land a full season in British Formula Ford in 2009. There, Newgarden won nine races and finished second in the championship.
But his season in GP3 was disappointing: he finished 18th with four top-10s in 16 races and a best finish of fifth. It's difficult for Americans to find funding in Europe and nearly impossible after a season like that.
"The best opportunity for me for last year was in Indy Lights," Newgarden said. "It was important for me to have a good year and I had a great year."
Newgarden, a 21-year-old from Hendersonville, Tenn., drove for Sam Schmidt's Lights team, which has won five championships.
"It launched me into IndyCar," Newgarden said. "I had some opportunities in Europe, but I wanted to stay in America and carried the momentum into IndyCar."
The $1 million is enough to cover Indianapolis and two or three more races. Fisher's team committed to the entire season. They're not a big team, but they did win the final race of 2011 with Ed Carpenter at Kentucky.
"They showed the most interest in me," Newgarden said.
Clauson has been winning USAC races since he was 16. He signed a development contract with Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team that same year, 2005, won an ARCA race in 2007 and drove in 26 Nationwide races in 2007 and 2008 with a best of fifth at Kentucky.
With development budgets drying up across NASCAR, Ganassi folded his Nationwide team at the end of 2008. Clauson, 22, went back to USAC and short-track racing.
Clauson grew up in Noblesville, Ind., and it was his dream to race in the 500.
"I've been coming to the Indy 500 since I was five years old," he said. "It's the place where heroes raced, where legends raced. It's the greatest race in the world."
Midget and Sprint Car drivers filled up most of the Indy 500 grid until the 1980s and they have been infrequent participants in recent years.
"I take a lot of pride in coming from short tracks," Clauson said. "It's been a while since short track fans have had somebody to hoot and holler for. There's a lot of fan support and people on the short track rinks that are excited. I think it's a giant step in the right direction as far as they're concerned, and kind of reopening the door."
Clauson also drove for Schmidt's team in Indy Lights, his first season in a rear-engined, single-seater.
"I learned a lot in Indy Lights," Clauson said. "It's helped us get off to a quick start at Indy. It's been good, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves."
The Indy 500 will be the first IndyCar race on an oval for Newgarden and Clauson. But keep an eye on them; they are two young Americans with very bright futures.