Josef Newgarden

Three INDYCAR drivers on a mission to prove doubters wrong: Are race car drivers really athletes?

Over two days on a uniquely complex obstacle course in downtown Indianapolis, they not only proved they were athletes, but also ninjas.

Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan competed on NBC’s popular “American Ninja Warrior” show, set along Indianapolis’ Monument Circle and taped from dark to dusk Wednesday and Thursday nights. They were joined by hundreds of other competitors hoping to move past the qualifying rounds and into the finals, which take place in Las Vegas later this summer.

“I hope we showed some of our athleticism, this is obviously a very different sport,” Newgarden (in photo above) said. “The discussion is always, ‘athleticism and racing’ and is that a thing, and for us it very much is. You have to be really prepared mentally and physically to drive an Indy car, but that doesn’t mean we can go be NFL wide receivers. And I think that applies a little bit to this, too.

“I thought we did all right representing (INDYCAR), getting through it and showing that we do have a good bit of athleticism.”

Tony KanaanThe show is in its eighth season, and the Indianapolis qualifier episode will air June 13 on NBC, whose partner network NBCSN is home to 10 Verizon IndyCar Series race telecasts this season.

“It’s one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had,” said 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Kanaan (photo at left). “It’s the unknown, it’s something that I’m not used to. I was definitely more nervous than any Indy 500 starts I’ve done, and a great experience.”

The three drivers were joined by NASCAR’s Ricky Stenhouse, who had former Indy car driver and girlfriend Danica Patrick on hand for support. The INDYCAR drivers also had a large support group, with specially designed t-shirts that read “INDYCAR Ninja” with the corresponding driver’s number on the back.

Newgarden’s Ed Carpenter Racing teammate/owner Ed Carpenter attended with wife Heather and their children, and good friends and fellow drivers James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly were on hand to cheer him through the course as well. Kanaan’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon wore their No. 10 Kanaan shirts proudly and helped lead a crowd chant of “TK” as he began the course.

“I honestly felt like I was at the speedway,” Kanaan said of the crowd’s support. “I honestly felt like I was inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Castroneves was the lone driver able to take to the course the first night, as a lengthy rain delay moved Kanaan and Newgarden to the following evening. After arriving at 6 p.m. for a walk-through of the obstacles, Castroneves finally competed near 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

“It was incredible to be here on the set of ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” Castroneves, the Team Penske driver, said. “The goal coming into the competition was to show that INDYCAR drivers are athletes, too, and even though our training is a lot different than the amazing athletes competing here on the show, I am happy with how I performed. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Even though he couldn’t be on hand the following night to watch his fellow drivers, going early allowed the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner a chance to pass along a few tips. Promptly after both drivers’ runs, Castroneves eagerly called to check in on Newgarden and Kanaan, who for at least two nights, were his teammates.