As far as names go, Emerson Newton-John's is one of the most fascinating to hit Indianapolis Motor Speedway in some time. He was born Emerson to match a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, and his surname matches his aunt and legendary singer and actress, Olivia.
As far as stories go, the younger Newton-John is doing the racing equivalent of a long overdue comeback tour – one that would make even Cher take notice.
Now 37, Newton-John will be making his first race start in 10 years when he hops aboard Fan Force United's No. 42 entry in this year's Firestone Freedom 100, the marquee event of the Firestone Indy Lights Series season. He runs as a teammate to full-season pilot Armaan Ebrahim in the sister No. 24 car.
It's his debut both in these cars and at this track, and it's the culmination of a decade-long search to find the backing to revive a career that stalled at the end of 2001 for various reasons.
We'll get to the backstory in a minute, but to prepare for this go-around, Newton-John had to pass two tests at Putnam Park's road course outside Indianapolis and then, more importantly, his first oval test aboard an FIL car at Iowa Speedway.
“There's these infamous bumps between Turns 1 and 2, and they're not well known for anything good. They're real,” he says. “Everyone told me about them, and they're as large and as sketchy as I've been told. Running a car flat over those bumps, it's eye-opening. Every time you dive into (Turn) 1 in Iowa, you're aware you're flat.”
Iowa's high-banked, high-speed 0.875-mile oval served as a foil to his last competitive racing experience, running in the fendered world of ARCA and NASCAR Trucks for a pair of one-off starts in 2002.
“I did my first race at Atlanta in ARCA, and that place wasn't at all overwhelming or that exciting,” he admits. “If anything, I almost caught myself sleeping at 185mph saying I needed to pay attention. Not so at Iowa in a Lights car! If you slightly bobble on entry, or don't get low enough, if you lose it, you hit in a big way.”
Crashing is a luxury Newton-John can't afford; he has support from his famous aunt, but not in a financial sense, and that's just fine by Emerson's wishes. Any incident before the start of qualifying at Indy would knock him out of racing, which has changed how he approaches going into the race.
“I've had to be very aware of where I'm at in terms of pushing the limit,” he explains. “I've pushed really hard both tests, but definitely have left a tiny bit on the table. It makes no sense to push 110 percent in practice because you don't win anything or get another check handed out.
“The old Emerson, by contrast, would have driven 110 percent, and not had the ability to reel himself in,” he adds, while showcasing some of his personality by use of the third person. “I would have ended up flat after 10 or 20 laps at Iowa, but now, I didn't allow myself to do that because either I wasn't ready for it, or the car wasn't.
“I wouldn't have been able to reel myself in 10 or 11 years ago, that needed to be fixed. I think now I've becoming a thinking driver. I'm trying to fix what they used to say about Emerson, ‘Oh, the dude's really quick, but he's gotta stop taking undue risks.' I think I have it fixed.”
So who was the “Old Emerson?” Essentially, Newton-John was trying to scrounge up enough support for a variety of one-off starts and partial seasons while jet-setting around the world to make the racing opportunities happen. That meant starting in shifter karts, then diversifying to testing a Formula 3 car in Japan, and racing Skip Barber Racing School events in the U.S. and Renault Megan Cup in France.
All of that led to his last full season, which still had a couple holes due to missing a couple rounds, in Formula Holden in Australia in 2001. He nearly won his debut race, finishing second on debut in Phillip Island, where he reeled in current Australian V8 Supercars star Rick Kelly and came up a fraction short by the finish. By the end of the year, he ended his last start third with an underpowered car in the final round at Winton.
There were hopes and dreams of finding more backing to continue racing in Australia, but as it was, Newton-John returned home on a plane to be back in Los Angeles.
At least that was the original intention. His flight back was on Sept. 11, 2001...
“The last race was Sept. 10, and we had a flight – either that night or first thing in the morning – back to L.A.,” he recalls. “The plan wasn't to move back to L.A. full time, it was to get another season of Formula Holden and continue living there. Halfway through the flight I was asleep, then I woke up and saw white caps.
“We were really low. The plane had the nose up. It had some flaps out. I knew something was up. One stewardess walked down briskly, I put my hand out and just grabbed her. I just said, ‘I know you're not allowed to say anything, but, tell me this – are we going down for an emergency water landing?' She said, ‘No. That's all I can tell you.' Then I was good. We weren't crash landing. We landed in Honolulu and were there for five days; obviously, it could have been a lot worse, but it was a horrible deal.”
Indirectly, this affected Newton-John's racing career because much of his support came from Wall Street backers, who were hesitant about continuing at that stage. And for Newton-John, the shock of the experience basically put racing on the back burner.
“The last thing you think about at that point is racing,” he says. “It took months to think about racing again. You don't think about chasing money – let alone doing so for racing. The country was united but it was utter chaos.
“It was the end of my formula car career, and it never recovered. I had a couple NASCAR deals, and I had to try building another career. I knew I wouldn't do Champ Car or F3000, and I was a 26-year-old American, so it was NASCAR or NASCAR. There really wasn't much of a path there.”
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: