If there was a dollar paid every time open-wheel fans asked, “Where are IndyCar's next American stars coming from?” there'd be enough money collected to fund a homegrown rising star…at least, for a while.
But they are out there. The IZOD IndyCar Series not only has Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal as U.S.-born proven race winners, but also a glut of talent coming through the ranks. Significantly, too, those ranks have been formalized by the establishment of the Mazda Road to Indy, and the route decreed is USF2000 to Star Mazda to Indy Lights to IndyCar.
Yet Josef Newgarden, the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion, is not the product of tutoring in this chain of schools – he spent two years in Europe. But he is proof that this country is producing top-class open-wheel talent. In 2008, he and Conor Daly won the Team USA Scholarships and jetted off to the UK to take part in the most prestigious races on the Formula Ford calendar – the Walter Hayes Trophy and the FF Festival. Daly won the former, Newgarden won the Kent-engined class in the latter, and Josef elected to stay out in England for a season of UK Formula Ford with Joe Tandy Racing. He finished second, with nine victories to his name.
A move to Carlin Motorsports for the inaugural season of GP3 didn't work out as planned, with the new car's quirks needing to be ironed out. A pole position at Hockenheim and what should have been a second-place finish at the Hungaroring were not enough to entice Newgarden to stay – not when he had been offered a seat in the top Indy Lights team, Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The heritage of the team is a lot to live up to, however, and brings its own pressures.
“When you get to meet the team, you know their past, but you also see their chemistry,” says Newgarden, “and so I felt very positive joining Sam's team. Sure, it's like getting a ride with Penske or Ganassi in IndyCar – Sam has a program that is the Indy Lights equivalent, so people expect big things of you. But then you realize those great engineers and crew are now working for you, so the only possible weak link would be the driver!”
Newgarden undersells himself, but was specifically referring to the fact that he had to learn all the circuits on the Lights calendar. He also had as one of his permanent teammates, Esteban Guerrieri. True, Guerrieri – like Newgarden – had to learn all the circuits and learn oval racing, but the Argentine had finished third in Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2010 with six wins. With that experience of large-engined, open-wheel cars on his résumé, he could have gotten a headstart on his rivals and pummeled them into submission.
Yet it was Newgarden who won the first round of the year, at St. Petersburg, and never looked back. Winning the Freedom 100 – the support race for the Indy 500 – was a dream achieved, and he also triumphed in Iowa, Edmonton and Loudon. There could have been more still. For example, he led into the final lap of the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but one of his teammates, Victor Carbone, clipped Newgarden's right-rear tire, resulting in a puncture.
Thankfully, the championship had been settled by then. Clinching the title didn't seem likely after his one significant error of the year. At Long Beach, Newgarden clipped a manhole cover while leading and that pitched him into a wall. But racing fast and smart for the remainder of the year ensured that loss of points to Long Beach runner-up Guerrieri would not prove crucial.
“Yeah, it could have worked out a lot worse,” he admits, “but to be honest, we've had the mindset that every weekend is a standalone weekend. We had to keep focusing on what we had to achieve at that moment and maximize what we had. In fact, the toughest part of that Long Beach crash was that there was then a five-week gap until our next race, so that was a bit demoralizing.”
In the end though, Newgarden was a resounding champion. Even despite suffering the Vegas assault, the Nashville, Tenn., native was 94 points clear in the final standings. This can be put down to two things: one, Newgarden's immediate adaptation to oval racing; and two, his ability to remain composed. He's a very smart racer, usually a step ahead of his car, and has the ability to outfox his rivals because he can think while driving on the limit.
Schmidt agrees with both these assessments. “At ovals like Loudon and Iowa, you need the ability to set the car up for the long run and manage the balance of the car, through driving style and using your cockpit controls, and Josef seems to have taken to that like a duck to water. For not having driven on an oval before this year, he was very impressive.
“But just as impressive as the way he dominated in Loudon [Newgarden lapped all his rivals!] was the way he made the best of any given situation,” adds Schmidt. “Look at Baltimore, for example.”
There, Newgarden was caught out by a long brake pedal during qualifying (an intermittent issue throughout the year), and when he caused two full-course cautions, he lost his fastest times and was sent to the back of the field. Yet on race day, he was fast and error-free as he climbed through the field, patiently applying pressure to the driver ahead, then executing clean, decisive passes at every opportunity on his way to finishing second. Meanwhile, Guerrieri made an unforced error and crashed out of the lead. The contrast was striking.
Schmidt shares this perspective, but ceased being surprised by it earlier in the season. “Josef is the whole package,” he asserts. “You can't just be a great talent. Many of our drivers have been fast, but to be successful, you need patience, great judgment – know when to go, when not to go – and pick your battles. That's on-track. Then you need to work well with the engineers and deliver good feedback. And then you also have to be the whole package away from the car, too, keeping sponsors happy and developing relationships. Combine all that, and Josef is definitely one of the top guys we've had through our team.”
So Newgarden is ready to graduate…but to where? “Well, I've had a couple of very interesting offers from Europe for 2012,” he says, “but also from IndyCar teams. If I could tell you who, I think you'd be quite surprised. But I can't!
“What I will say is that I'm not just looking to go to a team where I'd be tooling around. I'd always be more inclined to do what Will Power did with Penske in 2009 – take a part-time role with a great team – than do a full season with a team that wasn't going anywhere. Will's a smart guy who's driven to succeed, not just hold a seat in IndyCar.
“Well, my intention is to do the same. I'm not going anywhere just to drive or be part of the scene. I want to win races and challenge for championships.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the December 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.