So, despite a handful of “so close” and “almost” deals, Newton-John continued to pursue the dream and keep the goal of returning – one day – to racing alive. The opportunity with Fan Force United, the team led by two-time Indianapolis 500 starter Tyce Carlson (LEFT), came after Newton-John's call saying he had some budget to bring, and Carlson's understanding it could provide the small team some extra attention. The only things he knew about Carlson, he says, were that he was called “T-Bone” as a driver and had rave reviews from a dozen different opinions.
“I told Tyce straight out – I don't want to play the game about how much. This is what I have,” Newton-John explains. “If you want to hang up right now, I get it. But there are other things I think I can bring on a marketing front.”
The Putnam Park test was his first time in a formula car since the Formula Holden days. He says it did feel like “riding a bike” and he flattered himself, the team, and IndyCar officials on hand to witness the test – so much so there was a misunderstanding about how well he had performed in the blustery conditions and in just 32 laps.
“We had one official there first, and then Tony Cotman, Tony George Jr. and Vince Kremer all show up in an SUV,” he laughs. “Now I'm thinking, ‘Oh, great. They're here to see me embarrass myself and have a great laugh at dinner about what a joke this Emerson Newton-John is.' I walked over and asked how they were doing, but it caught them off guard.
“Anyway, it was awesome because I got back in the car and did a really quick 4-5 lap session. Before I entered the pits, one of the guys walks to our team and says, ‘He's good to go. See you later.' I saw the SUV leaving and thought, ‘Oh God, what happened?' My engineer Tim (Wardrop) and the guys came up to me and said, ‘Dude, you're already licensed (for an oval). It was nuts!”
Wardrop is Newton-John's ace in the hole. The same engineer who tuned Arie Luyendyk's record-setting qualifying run in 1996 (LEFT) will be turning the wrenches on the former PDM Racing Indy Lights chassis. As Newton-John put it, “He's a cool cat – he's hilarious, and he's a borderline legend. When I tell people, ‘Wardrop's my engineer,' they're like, ‘Dude, you've got something good there.'”
While he's far from the favorite, Newton-John's expectations for his run this month are much higher than originally anticipated. His quick adaptation to the Lights car in his two tests have changed the goal from simply finishing to going for it.
“To be honest, they've changed a lot because of how well testing went,” he says. “I can't BS this. Part of me thought I could still drive, but the other thought I was a dreamer, and I need to wake up and hit reality at some point – so this was crazy. Not only am I jumping in the same level of car where my career stopped, but on an oval. Like, what am I thinking?
“To be honest, I was more worried about Iowa than the road course, even though the road course takes fives times the skill. I knew I could still drive, but I hadn't entered a corner in an open-wheel car with mad banking, a concrete wall, and a tight corner at 165mph. When we did, I had some happy team owners, engineers and crew.
“So I went in thinking, ‘Let's do decently in the test.' And maybe just finish, stay clean, and finish at least midpack. But dude, I'm so far from thinking that. I'm going there to win. My team thinks we can too. I feel physically, mentally and emotionally in the best shape of my life.
“The best word to describe this thing is surreal. Regardless of what happens at Indy, it's surreal. I didn't expect anything like this – nor did the team. It's the best thing that could have happened. I'm kind of tripping out because I thought it would be a longer ramp-up to speed than what it's been. It's amazing.”
His best lap in the series' recent IMS test at 187.455mph was done in a solo run, so he figures there's more speed to be found. Newton-John and teammate Ebrahim will fly the Fan Force United flag in the Freedom 100 on Friday, May 25, with his aunt Olivia Newton-John scheduled to be involved as the race's grand marshal. The surreal experience will at that point, become fully realized.
A video of Newton-John's test at Iowa is below: