IndyCar's Josef Newgarden blazing a path to stardom with underdog team
IndyCar is off this week, so Josef Newgarden went to Nashville—a place where he knew he wouldn’t have to fret over where to crash (his parents’ pad in Hendersonville) or what to do. “I can just hang out, eat food, spend time with the family—and Fathers Day weekend will be special,” he says. “I like going on runs by myself, especially at nighttime or early morning when there’s not really a lot of people around. For me, that’s really decompressing.”
His staycation is well deserved. Just beyond the season’s midway point, Newgarden, 24, has emerged as a star in a series that struggles to make them in America. Through 10 races, the fourth-year driver, a Johnny Bravo lookalike with a habit of naming his racecars after Disney princesses, has already reached victory lane twice—behind the wheel of a car he calls Jasmine. To put that in perspective, the only other pilots to double up on victories so far—Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon—drive for the super teams of Penske and Ganassi, respectively. Newgarden, meanwhile, steers Chevrolet machines for CFH Racing—the underdog collaboration of an IndyCar driver, Ed Carpenter; a racing pioneer, Sarah Fisher; and a Kansas oilman, Wink Hartman.
Their franchise enters the break on a white-hot streak. Newgarden grabbed the most recent of his checkered flags on the streets of Toronto on June 14. “As soon as we got up front around lap 30,” he says, “I knew immediately we had a shot at winning.” The guy who trailed just 1.4485 seconds behind Newgarden—a 29-year-old Italian road course specialist named Luca Filippi—was in a CFH car, too.
As it happens, that car was penalized on Wednesday for having too big a gas tank, exceeding the 18.5-gallon limit by “about half of one-tenth,” Fisher reckons. While the fuel reserve was not found to be significant enough to have had a bearing on the race, CFH was nonetheless fined $5,000 for the rounding error. If that punishment seems petty, imagine the complaining that would’ve bubbled up from within the paddock and without had IndyCar not acted.
What’s important is that the outcome of the race—a 1-2 finish, a major milestone for CFH—still counts. It was the fourth such result in the past five IndyCar events, but just the second achieved by a team other than Penske or Ganassi—who have been locked in a heavyweight fight for the year-end championship since the season opened in March.
Their drivers occupy the top four slots in the standings, while Newgarden sits eighth. That position, while not as bad as it looks (only 15 points separate him from fifth-place driver Graham Rahal), still feels like it should be higher with two wins in the bank. “I’m with ya on that,” Newgarden says. “I think we have had a good stretch of the year. I think top five in the points is very possible for us. But it [the eighth place] really comes down to the result of some of the races we’ve had.”
For the first month of the season Newgarden rolled along smoothly, placing no lower than 12th through his first three races and collecting a win—a career first—at the Grand Prix of Alabama on April 26. His Month of May, though, was rough. After finishing 20th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he totaled one car—codename: Ariel—while practicing for the Indy 500, just as qualifying was about to get underway. As he was entering Turn 2, Ariel’s back end got loose, sending Newgarden spinning into the wall and scraping down the back straight upside down. “She’ll never swim again,” he says of his mangled mermaid.
Although Newgarden would emerge from the accident without any visible scratches, one would’ve expected his self-belief to be have been somewhat dented upon suffering so deflating a setback. But, no. All Newgarden did was climb into a backup car—Jasmine, so named because he once considered her to be the most free-spirited of his rides—and let her rip. “When I watched Josef crawl in the car and qualify,” says Fisher, “it was wide open, no confidence issues whatsoever. I was just proud of that.”
If Fisher sounds a bit like a mother gushing about her son when speaking of Newgarden—of how he never got down after the scare at Indy (where he went on to finish a career-high ninth at the 500), or when fortune frowned upon him again in two of his next three races (both 21st-place efforts at Belle Isle and Ft. Worth)—it’s because she’s nurturing a career that’s barely a decade old. Newgarden was on course for a baseball career—even though he didn’t especially love life as a catcher and centerfielder—before taking up karting at the rather advanced age of 13. Still, he advanced rapidly enough to earn opportunities to turn laps in European minor leagues. In 2011, at age 20, Newgarden returned stateside to race Indy Lights, won five races and cruised to the championship.
That December, Fisher recruited him to race for her team—which, back then, was just a single-car outfit she ran with Hartman. “We saw just an outstanding young American kid with an exceptional resume,” Fisher says. “We knew that his road racing would be good, that his oval racing would be good, that he could be key to our success in this series. There really was no other person that we thought, This is the perfect person to grow a team around.”
But first, they’d have to take their lumps with Newgarden as he tore through equipment and bombed out of event after event. In Year 3, the 2014 season, Newgarden made his greatest strides yet. He bumped his average starting position to 10.8, led 20 laps and recorded his second career podium (second place on an oval, at Iowa) on the way to finishing a robust 13th in the points standings.
Of course, just when Newgarden turned the corner, his contract expired. To keep the budding star from bolting the CFH shop on the eve of the ’15 season, Fisher promised continuity. “I think the key thing was making sure that his engineering staff stayed in place,” she says. “He was really looking for the consistency from the team side, from my husband Andy [O’Gara] who calls his races, from [chief engineer] Jeremy Milless, from everybody on his stand, to his core group. He likes his crew chief, Anton [Julian]. It really wasn't about money. He is a core, just want-to-win athlete.”
It wasn’t until mid-August of last year, when Fisher and Hartman combined their team with Carpenter’s, that she could finally promise Newgarden something he’d never really had in his IndyCar career—teammates. “Having a two-car team was a really big step forward,” says Newgarden, who signed a one-year extension days after the merger went through. “It’s just a lot more engineers to work with, a lot more people to work with in general and more eyeballs on everything.”
The extra manpower would prove especially helpful to getting Newgarden back on track during that rough spring stretch, while having Carpenter for a garagemate and Filippi too (who runs road course races in Carpenter’s place) has done wonders for Newgarden’s race craft. How long they’ll be able to keep this band together remains to be seen. Newgarden’s extension expires after this season. With every breakthrough, his terms get tougher to meet.
If Newgarden keeps his nosecone clean, he could very well be running for a championship at year’s end. “Oh 100 percent I think that’s very possible,” he says. “The thing is we’ve got a lot of improvement that we need to do on our oval kit right now. We’ve got three big ovals coming up, right in a row. We’ve got a lot of smart people. If we do a great job with that, we turn the thing around a little bit, I think for sure, without a doubt we can fight with the top three.”
In other words, don’t expect him to lay low for much longer.