An Interview With Josef Newgarden

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One of the few advantages of reaching my ripe old age is that I now have a fairly calm perspective on most things. I don’t normally make extreme statements one way or the other on things. I tend to stay fairly even-keeled on most subjects. I say that to preface what I’m about to say: I have just met the next big star of the IZOD IndyCar Series; and he’s not even in it – not yet, anyway.

Nashville native Josef Newgarden is the points leader for the Firestone Indy Lights series. He drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and has already won three races this season, including this past Saturday in Iowa. What’s even more impressive is that he has already won on three completely different types of track – the street course at St. Petersburg, the giant historic oval that sits at 16th and Georgetown and the short oval at Iowa. The only thing missing from his resume thus far is a natural terrain road course. Something tells me he’ll snag one of those before the season is out.

I’ve been intrigued by the quick rise of Josef Newgarden ever since he was signed prior to the start of the season. I remember on Trackside one night, probably in late February, Kevin Lee talking about Josef and how he thought he was European until he looked at his bio and saw he was from Nashville. Actually, Josef is from Hendersonville, which is just north of Nashville. Many of the area country music stars live in Hendersonville. It’s just across the county line, but still part of the greater Nashville area.

What is most intriguing is that Josef Newgarden is quickly becoming a household name in the IndyCar world, yet he is completely anonymous in his hometown of Nashville – where he was born and lived his entire life up until 2009 when he moved to Europe to race in Formula Ford and then in GP3. Here in the midst of NASCAR country, no one seems to be aware that there is a rising star in their own backyard.

On Monday, I was contacted by IndyCar to see if I wanted to take part in a one-day Nashville media blitz on Tuesday for Josef Newgarden. I don’t normally do many interviews. I usually just throw out my opinion on things and hope people will read it. But in this case, I jumped at the chance. With such short notice, I had obvious work conflicts. But they were very flexible and were willing to meet me after work at The Cheesecake Factory in a mall very close to my house. As usual, I knew I didn’t have many original questions – so yesterday, I threw it out on Twitter that I was meeting with him later in the day. Many people provided some great questions that I posed to him. Unfortunately, I was coming straight from work so I had no voice recorder – only a notepad to jot down some of the key points he threw out there, so some of this is paraphrased.

Still, I think you can get a feel for who Josef Newgarden is. I had already noticed how polished and media savvy this twenty year-old seemed on television. He and I sat at a table one-on-one for an hour. What I found was an engaging and energetic personality who was even more likeable in person. I think had he not had other media engagements last night, we could have sat there all night and talked racing. This was no kid, although I had to keep reminding myself that he was over a year younger than my own son. Although he had the enthusiasm of an eighteen year-old, he seemed to have the racing IQ of a thirty-five year-old veteran. Here are some of the questions that I asked from readers, along with his paraphrased response:

You and I share something…we both grew up in Tennessee, yet we have chosen open-wheel racing over stock cars. How did you evolve into open-wheel racing and do you think you’ll ever be tempted to cross over to the dark side of NASCAR?

Never say never. I won’t say never to anything. IndyCar is definitely next on my list, but I would like to try many forms of racing; ALMS, Formula One and yes, NASCAR. So don’t rule out NASCAR.

The early years of the Indy Lights Series proved to be somewhat of a dead-end to most drivers trying to make the jump to IndyCar. Only recently, have we seen a large number of drivers graduate into IndyCars from Indy Lights. Have you talked with any of the recent Indy Lights graduates who have made the jump? What do they say about what does and what does not translate into the bigger and more powerful IndyCars?

That’s really a great question. I’ve talked to Hinchcliffe and Wheldon and they both say that Indy Lights is the best training ground for any driver aspiring to get into IndyCars – and I’m not just saying that because that’s where I am – it really is the best place to be if you’re wanting to drive an IndyCar.

Have you ever driven any type of car at Nashville Superspeedway and do you think the series should try to come back to Nashville?

I rode as a passenger in a car around the track once in the Richard Petty Driving Experience when I was about twelve. That’s the only time I’ve been around the oval. I drove my personal car around the road course once a few years back, but I’ve never personally driven around the oval in Nashville. (Note – He wisely never answered the question if the series should return to Nashville. I told you he was media savvy).

What type of track suits your skills the best?

What I really like about the series is the diversity of tracks we run on. We run short ovals, superspeedways, road courses and street courses. Each of those requires a certain skill set. (I pointed out that he had already won on three of those – he just grinned, and then said, “That’s why I like the series”). You gotta be good on all types.

Is any team talking to you about a car for next year?

(Note – this was his only canned answer and I told him so at the time. But given the business nature, he really had no other choice)

I have had talks with some people about next year, but that is really all I can say about that, right now. In all honesty, I just want to focus on the job at hand for this season.

What about road racing has prepared you (and Helio, TK, Dario, Danica, etc) to be so good on ovals?

It sounds simple, but it all comes down to some get it and some don’t. Not all road racers adapt well to ovals. Some don’t like them, while others are actually terrified of them. They don’t scare me, but it really just comes down to some just get it.

Have you now put Europe behind you, and are you now solely focused on pursuing an IndyCar career?

Temporarily. I’ve put those other dreams aside for now, but as I said earlier – I’m wanting to give all other forms of motorsports a try. But right now, my focus is getting into an IndyCar and driving in IndyCar for a while.

How big/difficult is the jump from USF2000 to Star Mazda to FIL?

It’s not that difficult. It’s a fairly natural progression, although I didn’t drive in USF2000 and I only drove a Star Mazda car once. I did drive Skip Barber and I’ll throw that in too for the natural progression of all four of them from one to the other.

What is the most difficult part of the job that most fans don’t know about?

The business side. You can have all kinds of driving skills, but if you don’t have the business side taken care of – you’re on the sidelines. Unfortunately, driving skills make up only ten percent of what it takes these days to drive a car. The business side takes up the other ninety percent. Twenty years ago, the teams went out and got the sponsorship and then hired the best driver. Today, the team hires the driver that brings the best sponsorship package.

What advice did you give Connor Daly before he left for Europe?

[Smiles and gives thought before answering for the first time]

I told him that there were going to be tough times and bad results, but he was going to have to stay motivated and confident regardless of what was going on around him. He went to Carlin, which was the same team that I drove for last year. Not to “dis” them, but he is going to have to stay focused.

What are the cultural and political differences in the F1 vs the IndyCar series?

There is so much more pressure in Europe. The politics in F1 are unbelievable. This is just a nicer place to be. It’s much more pleasant in IndyCar. That’s why so many drivers come here from F1 and stay.

Where do you get started with karting for kids in Nashville?

Actually, even though I grew up here in Nashville – my dad took me to the Newcastle Motor Park in Newcastle, IN. That’s Mark Dismore’s track. That was the closest place we could find for competitive karting. We drove three hundred miles every weekend to go race at Newcastle. There really isn’t much in the way of competitive karting around Nashville.

Ask about the squirrel from (Monday) night.

[Laughing]

I posted that on Twitter. I have an outdoor cat and it brought home a squirrel that it had tried to kill. My mom is an animal lover and she freaked. She tried to pick it up to put it in a box so that we could take it to the vet, and the squirrel bit her hand. So now I’m thinking rabies. We took it to the vet and they x-rayed this squirrel and started doing all these procedures. It’s now on its way to recovery. (Note – I never did hear how the mom’s squirrel bite was).

We had many more “off the record” exchanges. They weren’t off the record so far as being juicy or controversial. They were more just an example of me going off on some tangent about racing, Nashville or his lack of fame in his hometown. Hopefully, this Nashville media tour will start to change that.

Thanks to Josef Newgarden and Tracey Todd with IndyCar for setting this up and being flexible in dealing with my work schedule.

As I said earlier, I don’t normally make statements that are outlandish and over the top. That’s why I think you need to believe me when I say that Josef Newgarden is going to be a star in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He is bright, confident, yet humble and is also a very talented driver. With Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Pippa Mann, Simona de Silvestro, James Hinchcliffe, J.R. Hildebrand and now Josef Newgarden – I have confidence in the up and coming generation of the IZOD IndyCar Series. And being the old grump that I am; after spending an hour with a twenty year-old that grew up in Nashville, I now actually have some hope for this generation of kids in general.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “An Interview With Josef Newgarden”

  1. The Lapper Says:

    Good to see some ink (bandwidth?!) on Josef. He’s a great kid and, in my opinion, he will be a big star because he seems savvy and has his feet on the ground.

  2. He’s a good driver. I wish him all the best–just not in Nascar.

  3. I’d heard his name, but didn’t know much about him. Maybe the best part is that Indycar is actually sending him on a “media blitz”. We need to know who these guys are and start pulling for them early.

  4. HB Donnelly Says:

    Good stuff from both the interviewer (as always) and the interviewee. I have to admit I didn’t really take a look at Josef until he started winning some races; I was more interested in Daly and Clauson in the #77 car. Newgarden did a great job in the slipstream battle that is the Freedom 100 and he drove exceptionally at a tough Iowa track. Hopefully SSM or somebody will step him up for at least a few wvwnts next year.

  5. George, this is the first look at Josef Newgarden I have come across and I hope for more. I like this racer from Tennessee.

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