The Steal Of The Offseason
Apparently, I live under a rock (or out of the loop). One of the perks of being an IndyCar blogger is that we get most of the press-releases from the series and/or the various teams. When I got the release about Sarah Fisher Racing having a driver announcement for this past Wednesday, it hinted that most probably already knew who it involved. I hate to admit it, but I had no clue. Knowing that our friend Pressdog had some previous ties to Sarah Fisher, I e-mailed him to see what he knew. He politely informed me that he thought it might be Josef Newgarden. As we all now know, Pressdog was correct.
I was wondering if this was a by-product of Newman/Haas closing their doors last week. Prior to that, most rumors had Newgarden headed to the empty GoDaddy car at Andretti Autosport. That ride now seems destined to be filled by one of the casualties at Newman/Haas – James Hinchcliffe. But to hear Sarah Fisher talk, this had been in the works for a while.
Whatever the case, Sarah Fisher ended up with the steal of the offseason. Plain and simple, Josef Newgarden will be a star in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He has that rare and sought-after combination of driving talent along with star-power and marketability. When I sat down with him for over an hour this past summer, I came away with the feeling that I had been talking with a thirty-five year-old veteran – not someone two years younger than my own son that had never turned a wheel in an IndyCar.
Sarah had another announcement about her own team other than pulling off the coup of the offseason – longtime supporter Wink Hartman is now a partner at Sarah Fisher Racing, prompting a name change to Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR). I might have come up with something different because those that don’t know that her husband is Andy O’Gara, might think that Hartman is now her married name, but I digress.
Wink Hartman is head of Hartman Oil Company. He is the one that came to her rescue in 2008 during the ResQ sponsorship debacle leading up to the Indianapolis 500. Hartman provided the funding that allowed her to finish out the trying month of May. He is also the source of the new and lighter Dallara chassis that was presented as a surprise to Sarah, to provide the team with an adequate back-up car. He has been involved with the team and decided to step up his financial involvement and become a partner.
With Newgarden coming on board along with Hartman, the game has changed at SFHR. Although they were the last team to win an IndyCar race, the road ahead looked tough for the small team. They had lost their sponsor and their driver within about a month of each other and questions were swirling. A lot of those questions were put to rest on Wednesday, but a new set arose.
Josef Newgarden is coming off a championship in Firestone Indy Lights where his enormous talent was on display. Although he is a rookie, in my mind he carries more clout than some of the more recent Indy Lights champions. He will not be content for on-the-job training as a backmarker, week after week. I talked to him enough to tell that his mindset is to win now, not later.
In all honesty, I was a little surprised that Sarah Fisher was able to sign Newgarden. He was under contract with Sam Schmidt and rumored to be headed there or else with Andretti Autosport. Although Sam Schmidt Motorsports hasn’t won a race at the top level, they did win the pole at Indianapolis this past season. Andretti Autosport has two Indianapolis 500 wins under their belt along with two championships.
To go from being mentioned as a possibility at AA to signing with a fledgling team that just won its first race two months ago is sort of a shock. Either some dominos fell at other teams that filled some empty seats or Sarah Fisher, Andy O’Gara and Wink Hartman were able to convince Newgarden that they had seriously raised expectations at SFHR. That may have been the case, since they signed Newgarden to a three-year deal. Their oval program, in the old Dallara at least, is in good shape. It’s their non-oval package that I worry about. It hasn’t really been where it needs to be since the team’s inception. That’s what is going to have to happen to keep Newgarden happy.
But I’m happy for both of them. I’ve been a fan of Sarah Fisher for years, dating back to when she first came onto the scene as a nineteen year-old driving for Derrick Walker. When she formed her own team, the odds of succeeding for even a couple of years were slim. Now she is retired from driving, a new mom and heading into her fifth season as an owner. Along the way, she never lost her warm personality or her strong desire to succeed. Regardless of who is running the team – husband Andy, father-in-law Johnny O’Gara, Wink Hartman or Sarah herself – Sarah is the face of the team and the reason we want them to succeed.
Now we have a new reason to cheer for Sarah Fisher – Josef Newgarden, who was born in Nashville and is about as All-American as they come. Mark the date of Dec 9, 2011 as the day that I guarantee that this guy will become a megastar in the IZOD IndyCar Series. It may or may not happen at SFHR, but it will happen. The only thing preventing it is either injury or his moving to Formula One or (God forbid) NASCAR.
As Sarah correctly pointed out on Wednesday, it may be a big plus that Josef Newgarden has never driven the 2003-11 Dallara. He’ll have nothing to compare the new car to when they begin to test it. The new car is only the first of many challenges facing SFHR in the coming months. They have yet to announce a sponsor, whether they will be full-time or part-time or even an engine deal for 2012. Something tells me that a sponsor and an engine may already be in place, but they’re still working on funding to go full-time next season.
But now that they’ve got Josef Newgarden in the cockpit, this is definitely a team to watch in 2012. All parties have done everything the right way. They will be very easy to cheer for.