“You know, it’s not supposed to be this easy.” – May 27, 2011
I still recall saying those words in victory circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the shadows of the nearby Pagoda casting the only dark ray over the smile and future of Josef Newgarden. Then a 20-year-old Tennessean, he had just won the Indy Lights Freedom 100, matching the feat of his Lights debut at St. Petersburg earlier that spring. Newgarden went on to win three more races for Sam Schmidt in his lone Indy Lights season.
Yet, when I made the statement, I looked in Newgarden’s eyes, and I knew. It was not a question for Josef, it was a question for the rest of us in witness: Are we seeing the next great thing?
Six years later, under the setting sun of Sonoma, California, the answer, now dated and deemed rhetorical, was confirmed. Yes. Yes, in fact, we were. But it didn’t come that easily. At least for us.
If there was a time when things were challenging along the road to becoming a Verizon IndyCar Series champion, the personable American masked them better than any helmet with a tinted visor. In the third race of his rookie Verizon IndyCar Series season in 2012, Newgarden started on the front row aside one of the sport’s most decorated champions. Turn 1 on Seaside Way only had room for a single car and, while Dario Franchitti made it through, Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing machine did not.
A disappointing learning experience, but Newgarden’s spirit seemingly did not waver. Later that week, there he was, front and center on YouTube, doing “Harlem Shake” videos to promote the sport he loves. If a driver was not meant to be so poised and relaxed, it appeared Newgarden never got the memo.
Perhaps I should have realized his resolve and dedication five months earlier. At the 2011 Verizon IndyCar Series finale in Las Vegas, the recently crowned Indy Lights champion served as driver analyst for our Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcast.
We all know the tragedy that took place that day. I recall the professionalism and maturity Josef showed under the most difficult of circumstances. It was a professionally trying day for us all, but no one could have asked for better from a young driver months from his debut in the series. On the flight back from Las Vegas, I recall wondering two uncertainties: Would Newgarden be able to climb into a cockpit, and will we ever see another driver with passion for fans like that of Dan Wheldon? Little did I know amidst that dark October sky, both questions would be answered in the form of one driver.
Racers are a unique breed, all with a bravery and acceptance of the inherent risk among their craft. Not all, however, are designed to master the art of marrying their passion with that of their fan base. Dan Wheldon did that. So, too, does Newgarden.
At some point, I think we all felt his ascent to the top was inevitable. Even still, after a mistake at Watkins Glen in the penultimate race this season cost him in the points, I couldn’t shake the question: Is pressure finally starting to show?
With his points lead in single digits and Scott Dixon lurking heading into the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Newgarden finally tipped his hand: “I’m always nervous before very race,” he quipped. “I’m just not gonna show you how to tell.”
In the season finale at Sonoma, he didn’t. After mastering qualifying, Newgarden drove smart and clean, wisely allowing Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud to take the No. 1 spot on the race podium, knowing it secured Newgarden the No. 1 on his 2018 car.
In the heart of wine country, the first-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion tasted the fruits of his labor in the midst of the mist of celebratory champagne.
Two days later, he was a guest on my afternoon radio show on Fox Sports 97.5 in Indianapolis. It was “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” a time-worn gag whose expiration date I’ve refused to acknowledge. As I introduced him on the show, listing his accolades and congratulating his accomplishments, I heard the unmistakable “Ar-r-r-r-r-r-r” of a pirate on the other end of the phone.
“Thank ya, matey!” Newgarden said.
With one light-hearted moment, the clarity I’d long been looking for came to me. It was just we who were wondering when the fun would get serious for Josef Newgarden.
And it was Newgarden, all along, who had the answer.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)