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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Josef Newgarden's high hopes

by Gordon Kirby
Without doubt Josef Newgarden is one of America's most promising open-wheel prospects. Newgarden caught everyone's attention at the end of 2008 when he went to England as one of Jeremy Shaw's Team USA scholarship winners and won the Kent engine race at Brands Hatch's Formula Ford Festival. The young Tennessean went on to compete in the British FF championship in 2009 and showed he was no flash in the pan by winning nine races and contending for the title, eventually finishing a close second in points.

Newgarden moved up to the new GP3 category in 2010 but a lack of testing and resources kept him from running at the front. Still, he took pole for the GP3 race at Hockenheim and hoped to continue racing in Europe before he was lured back to the United States for this year by offers of Indy Lights test drives with Andretti Autosport and Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

"There were a couple of opportunities in Indy Lights," Newgarden says. "It started with Andretti Autosport who showed an interest in doing something and Sam followed quickly after that. Having the two top teams interested in me was very nice. It was pleasing to have them interested in me and it really was purely that. There was just some interest from those two teams. They wanted to see if we could make it happen for the season and make it work. So we did some testing over the winter and had some help from both of those groups."

© Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
A deal was finally done just a few weeks before the start of the Lights season for Newgarden to drive for Schmidt's team and Josef has been the man to beat this year winning five races and adding four more podium finishes. With two races remaining at the Kentucky and Las Vegas ovals in October, Newgarden leads the Indy Lights championship by ninety points and has all but wrapped up this year's Lights title.

"It really came down to the wire before the season started," Newgarden relates. "I didn't sign a contract with Sam until three weeks before St. Pete. It was very last-minute and it was more Sam showing a leap of faith and trying to help me out more than anything. So I've tried to do a good job for him all year and repay him for that.

"The reason I came back was because it was the best situation for the year and it was really the only thing we could make happen. I think it's so crucial to be in the right situation year after year. Certainly in Europe it's even more important. It just magnifies how important it is to be in the right situation at the right time."

Newgarden believes his time racing in England and Europe was invaluable to his development as a professional racer.

"The best thing about those two years was the experience," he remarks. "If you want to learn and you're a young driver, getting into a competitive situation is the best thing you can do. I think going over to Europe, starting with the Team USA scholarship which is where it all started for me, certainly was the best choice. Honestly, I don't think I would have taken the trek back home to America if there were still good options available for this year in Europe.

"Both those years were really great. I think going to the grassroots style of doing Formula Ford first and really learning the mechanical side of a race car was really important. Some people don't believe in that nowadays. They think Formula Renault with slicks and wings is the way to go and that the older style of Formula Ford without slicks and wings is not relevant. But I don't believe that. I think it's perfectly fine to try and learn the raw basics of a race car before you add aero to the development."

After a great Formula Ford season in the UK Newgarden struggled in GP3 last year because of a shortage of pre-season testing and resources.

"When GP3 followed in 2010 I think it was a good year and it had the potential to have a lot more success than what was shown. It was a difficult season for many reasons, including that it was a new championship. It was new to everybody, including the teams. Certainly Carlin is one of the best teams I've driven for. I had a fantastic time driving for them and I would not want to take anything away from them. I think they are a phenomenal group. It's just that things were circumstantial for us that year and certain things held us back from achieving more than we could have.

"Certainly in GP3 I had never driven a winged car before that year and I had no experience over the winter. I jumped into it with only a couple of days testing and most of the other drivers had done much more testing. I missed out on a lot of pre-season testing.

"From that standpoint it was very disappointing and difficult and certainly left a sour taste in my mouth. That's one of the reasons why I really wanted to stay in Europe for another year because I felt like I still had something to prove and I wasn't able to prove it. But then, coming back over here was almost a move that had to be made to take advantage of the right situation that was on the table."

© Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Newgarden is extremely grateful for the faith Schmidt showed in him and the work put in this year by his engineer Doug Zister and chief mechanic Sean Birmingham.

"Sam has really helped me this season and made it possible, along with other people like Doug and Sean. But certainly it would have never happened had Sam not really stepped up to help. I've been looking to him for advice to try to guide me in the right direction here in America."

Schmidt enabled Newgarden to do more testing than he's ever enjoyed prior to any year of his young career.

"As difficult as this was to make happen, like every year is, I had the most pre-season testing I've ever had," Josef says. "I had seven days in an Indy Lights car before St. Pete and that was a lot more than I've ever done before any season started. That was one of the nice things about this year. I had a lot of seat time before going into the season-opener. I think that's a lot of why we had so much success early on and straight out of the box won the first race. It's the most preparation work I've ever had before a season."

Newgarden has enjoyed the power of an Indy Lights car but has had a tough time in many races getting his car to stop quickly and smoothly.

"Moving to the Indy Lights car from a GP3 car there was certainly a big power difference," he remarks. "The GP3 has a much smaller engine. It's pretty torquey out of the corner but it falls very flat on its face down the straightaways. It doesn't have a lot of pull. But the Indy Lights car has a pretty linear power band all the way up to the top end. It continues to pull all the way up to the top of the range which is nice because you feel constant power all the way down the straightaway.

"The other big difference was the extra weight of the Indy Lights car. I think that played a big role in the brakes. The GP3 car had the most phenomenal braking capacity I've ever felt in a race car. The Lights car is almost horrible compared to the GP3 car. Certainly at the beginning of the season and all year long that's been our biggest struggle--trying to get the right braking package and understanding the braking of the car and getting it right.

"That's difficult because if you don't have your braking right then almost everything is messed up. It affects everything on the car. The brakes are really the worst thing you could have an issue with."

Newgarden was delighted to win the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg.

"I think that's the first time I've done that. It was very nice, a good thing for sure. It also boded well for the year. It gave me confidence straight out of the box that you can try to carry that through the whole season."

He made his biggest mistake of the year at Long Beach, crashing near the end while leading the race.

"That was probably the lowest point of the season. Certainly we had worked all through that race and pretty much had command there. We were doing a good job but I think it was just the nature of learning to survive and handle street circuits all the way to the finish. No matter how in control of the race you are things can happen literally right at the very end.

"That was a difficult pill to swallow but I think it was also one of the best learning lessons I've had to go through in a race car. It taught me something and also set an experience in my mind that will never go away. It's always going to be there and be a reminder to me constantly in my career of how to handle the last part of the race correctly and not let anything happen when things are going well.

"My mistake was I thought the race was over. I thought I had done what I needed to do. We had a late caution and I had a great restart and opened up about a second and a half or two seconds on Conor (Daly), which was exactly what I needed to do. I was basically thinking I could just hold it off and cruise to the finish through the last couple of laps. I let my eye off the ball. I dropped the intensity level.

"Even if you're not running one hundred percent you still need to be at one hundred percent intensity or concentration all the way to the end. I think I dropped some of that. I was thinking that I had done what I needed to and was just going to kind of cruise to the finish.

© Ron McQueeney/IMS
"When I did that and got in that mindset all of a sudden I got caught out by a manhole cover. I hit it and wasn't expecting it and it bit me. It taught me to always keep that qualifying intensity. Even if you're not running qualifying pace you need to keep that intensity all the way through the end of the race.

"It was a manhole cover I had not hit all weekend. That's why it really caught me off guard. When I ran over it I lined the car up just perfectly over it. I hit it just right and lifted the front off the ground a little bit. Then I locked both front tires. It felt a lot more violent than it looked but it was just a mistake and it caught me so badly I didn't know how to react to it. I tried saving it, but being a little late on things I ended up in the wall."

Newgarden's performances this year on temporary circuits have been mixed, primarily because of his problems with the brakes. He was on the pole in Edmonton and finished first and second in the pair of races on the Canadian airport circuit.

"Edmonton was a good weekend," Josef notes. "Some of the street circuits we really struggled with the brakes. It sort of changed every time we've gone to a track. We had little gremlins and I think Edmonton was one of those places where we got on top of it a little bit and had good success.

"But after that we went to Three Rivers and we struggled with the brakes again. That really hindered us there. So it's been an up and down issue with the brakes, which has really held us back at some places but has put us ahead at others."

Newgarden had not driven on an oval prior to this year and has been surprised by his performance on ovals, winning at Indianapolis, Iowa and New Hampshire.

"Oddly enough I really like oval racing, which I never thought would happen. I never imagined I would love oval racing. I thought I was going to have to keep my A game up on road courses because I thought I was probably going to struggle on the ovals. Funnily enough, we've been incredibly good on the ovals. I almost think we've been better on the ovals this year than we have on the road courses, which is a little weird.

"We've certainly had success on both types of racing. We've had good runs on road courses, street circuits and ovals. I think it really shows that you need to be a master of everything if you want to do well.

"Certainly, I would look to someone like Dario Franchitti. He's probably the best example of a driver who really has the best package. Maybe he's not the best on a street course but he's so good on all tracks that it makes him a complete champion. I think that's why he's had so much success because he can go everywhere and be pretty darned good at everything. That's really what you need in the IndyCar championship, but also in Lights, which really tries to teach that to the kids I think."

Newgarden is confident of being able to run well at the final two Lights races on the Kentucky and Las Vegas banked ovals.

"We tested at Las Vegas," he says. "We went there directly after Long Beach. That was the first oval test I did so we've got a little bit of an idea of how that works. We also tested at Chicago which is very similar to both of them."

He can wrap-up the championship simply by taking the start at Kentucky and his plan is to go for it in both Kentucky and Vegas.

"Now that we're in such a strong position for the championship and really only need to start at Kentucky it takes a lot of pressure off. We're really going to be going for wins. We're not going to back-off or try and save equipment. It's still very much full-on. I'd like to end the season on a high for the guys and finish it off right."

Newgarden is working hard to put together a strong program for next year.

"Right now we're definitely focused on next year. That really happened right after Baltimore. I think we needed to make sure we were in a position to lock-up the championship before we started working toward next year. Now that's happened I think a lot more discussions can take place and a lot more emphasis placed on it.

"Certainly, we've been working on it since the beginning of the year with the goal in mind of winning the championship. You have to start on these things as early as you can. We've had some interesting talks and there seem to be some definite doors that could be opened for next year.

"To be honest, it's so difficult to say where things are going to go. We could be looking at three different options and I don't really know which one is going to take off or which situation could be more feasible to make happen.

"Really, I have no idea what's going to happen for next year but I really hope that it's going to be good things. Certainly, with the way this year's panned out it's going to help us get to an even better situation for next year."

He hopes to drive for a competitive IndyCar team but there's a chance he could return to Europe.

"IndyCar is probably the strongest arena for me to try and break into and that's really been our focus all year. But there are some interesting talks on the other side of the pond again.

"IndyCar has been our focus from the beginning of the season. Making the move back over here and running this championship the focus has been to translate into an Indy car with the thought process of maybe moving on in five or six years and making the trek back over to Europe. The whole plan when we moved back over here was to try to establish my name here. I would say the main focus right now is trying to make IndyCar happen for next year."

Newgarden emphasizes that he's not interested in simply filling out the field.

"The big point is not just making IndyCar happen. I'm not interested in just getting into IndyCar. I don't want to be just an Indy car driver. I want to be a successful Indy car driver. I want to get in the right situation where I have the opportunity and the people around me to be able to try to win championships. That's what my focus is. I don't want to be just driving around in IndyCar. I think with the new formula it's going to be crucial, even more vital, to be with the right situation."

Newgarden will celebrate his 21st birthday three days before Christmas and next year will be a critical step in his burgeoning career. But this has been a great year for him and if he can make the right move next year Josef should have a very bright future ahead of him.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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