- Driving IndyCar is his passion, but Josef Newgarden also has a knack for teaching.
When Josef Newgarden was growing up in Tennessee, his safety conscious parents barely let him ride a bike.
They had to get over that fear quickly. Bikes only go as fast as the feet of the rider can peddle, and Newgarden’s true passion takes him to much higher speeds. Now the 26-year-old is cruising around tracks at up to 230 mph.
The IndyCar driver, who started driving Go Karts 13 years ago, is in his sixth season, and first with Team Penske. Newgarden is having the best season of his career, leading for the first time with three wins and 494 points. As for mom and dad? They adjusted to the idea of their son in a racecar when they realized Newgarden’s favorite place to be is behind the wheel.
Driving IndyCar is his passion, but Newgarden also has a knack for teaching. SI.com sat down with the driver as he gave a full lesson on his sport for IndyCar newbies — the only thing missing was a quiz at the end.
Lesson No. 1: Racing is a team sport, but the driver is the captain
This is Newgarden's first season with Team Penske, and while he says a good driver can have success in a variety of different situations, the right team can elevate him — if he knows how to work with them.
"It really pays dividends when you join a group if you know how to utilize the information and utilize the resources, you can really take a step forward with that group," he said. "You are kind of the captain, or the quarterback of the team. You have to bring everyone together at the end of the day and get the job done."
The driver does much more than just turn the wheel at high speeds, and Newgarden has specific job criteria. He has to be knowledgeable about the engineering of a car and its different setups, as well as the strategy involved for different tracks.
A huge part of the sport is playing a mental game, and the success of a driver hinges on perfection. With 30-plus cars lining up to drive for three hours at speeds of 230 mph, the margin for error is decidedly slim. A driver has to maintain a high level of focus from start to finish.
"You make a thousand decisions in a race," Newgarden said. "You make one wrong decision and the race is done. You have to make every decision correctly, it is always happening, every moment of every lap and you mess up once and the race is over."
Lesson No. 2: Three different tracks
Perhaps the biggest appeal of IndyCar to racing fans is the variety the sport provides. That variety, Newgarden says, is what keeps the sport so competitive, because drivers can't be one-dimensional. In order to win championships they have to excel on all three tracks: street courses, road courses and ovals.
"They all require a different set up and a different driving style," Newgarden said. You have to be very good at bouncing back and forth between all of them."
Street courses are temporary courses built within a city. They are generally driven at lower speeds because the different elements of a city road affect driving. Newgarden and his competitors deal with potholes, surface changes (typically asphalt and concrete) and the wear and tear of a road that's driven on by cars and trucks every day.
Road courses are permanent tracks that don't require the set up of a street course. They can be driven at much higher speeds because of better road grip and maintenance. They aren't defined by the geography of a city, and the layout of its streets.
Ovals are different than street course and road course in that drivers are only turning left, rather than navigating a course. This requires a totally different car setup. On the other courses, cars have to be equipped to turn both left and right, but ovals require an asymmetrical setup in order to prioritize turning left. There are also two different types of ovals, superspeedways like Indy and Pocono, which are 2 to 2 ½ miles, and short ovals, which are typically a mile.
Newgarden grew up as a road course racer, driving Go Karts, but now he appreciates the challenge of navigating different tracks each time he races.
"I enjoy the process of having to go back and forth, and knowing how to switch your brain and switch the setups for each track," he said.
Lesson No. 3: Recovering from a wreck and the real challenge of IndyCar racing
If you drive a car for a living, wrecks are inevitable. Last season, at Texas Motor Speedway, Newgarden experienced a big one, breaking his clavicle and right hand. Two weeks later he was back in the car and racing again. Newgarden got his clavicle plated, and a brace for his hand. Then after passing a race simulation he was cleared to drive again. For drivers wrecking isn't as big of a deal as some might think.
"I think for most drivers in IndyCar it's not a challenge as much because we push any of those negative thoughts to the side," he said. "We don't really think about it too much because you really can't. If that starts to be a problem for you then it is difficult to perform at the level that you need to perform at."
Instead, Newgarden said the toughest part of his sport happens long before a driver sets foot on an IndyCar track.
Recovering from a wreck, not challenging. Getting to the professional level, very challenging.
Racing, he said, is much more of a business than any other sport, and without financial backing, there is no chance of making it. Young drivers often struggle with the financial element.
"It revolves around sponsorship," Newgarden said. "Someone has to pay for the car, the mechanics, the tires, the fuel, all the engineering budget that goes into it."
The money can come from lots of places, from friends and family, to sponsorship plans put together by a company. But the bottom line is, without it no matter how talented a driver is, they won't make it to the top level.
"When you get hired at the professional level it becomes a lot easier," Newgarden said. "Then you can focus on other things."
Lesson No. 4: Race day – Introverts beware
Race day is the perfect environment for an extrovert. It is filled with a constant stream of people, conversation and interactions — for outgoing individuals it's the stuff dreams are made of, but Newgarden isn't that person.
"I normally like spending time alone, so when you are at a race weekend you have everything going on," he said. "I don't mind it because it is part of the job, so it is not a big problem, but it can be very demanding on a person if they don't thrive off that. It totally wipes me out."
The day starts off with a drivers meeting, where rules and previous races are discussed, then Newgarden spends an hour with his engineers talking about strategy and car setup.
From there he heads off to interact with sponsors at Team Penske's hospitality, taking pictures, signing autographs and participating in a Q&A session.
Then, if the race is an oval, drivers run through pit stops, giving their teams the chance to practice fueling the car and changing tires. It also allows fans another opportunity to watch the cars before the race begins.
Finally after driver intros, the buildup is over, and Newgarden gets to race.
It's a long day, so when Newgarden gets home to North Carolina the Monday after a race he likes to take it easy.
"If I can just get home, sometimes I will just stare at the wall," he said with a laugh. "I'm happy to not be doing anything or talking to anyone. I normally need a day to decompress because there is so much going on."
Once he's recovered, Newgarden makes his way to the team shop, located 20 minutes away from his home. He spends everyday training, working with the engineers and mechanics and preparing for the next race.
Newgarden's next chance to take the track and defend his No. 1 position is Sunday, August 26 at the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.