The crack of emotion in Josef Newgarden’s voice following his championship-clinching effort Sunday at Sonoma Raceway went beyond the usual display of victorious emotion. It represented the future, spoke of the past, and reminded us why we watch sports.
Here was the newest face of the Verizon IndyCar Series, Astor Cup in hand, trying his best to keep it together. The question that sparked the emotion wasn’t about his effort, his accomplishment or his skills. It was about his parents, Joey and Tina.
Racing isn’t like other sports. When you discover your child is good -- exceptionally good -- at baseball or basketball, you need only furnish cleats or sneakers or balls or bats. You get the kid into camps and travel leagues. It’s an effort, no doubt, but it isn’t insurmountable.
In racing, the progress requires more extensive sacrifice, only a small portion of which is financial. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are required to advance a young racer from potential star to actual star, but the sacrifice of time and travel are beyond what many parents are able to provide. That’s why the newest champion -- the guy who always has a clear response -- stammered a bit while thanking his parents.
“It's taken a lot of people to get to this point, clearly and obviously,” Newgarden said as his post-race press conference began. “This started a long time ago with just my parents, and they're the biggest reason that I've been able to do this. They've put everything on the line for me to make sure I had an opportunity to do this, and that's where it starts, and then it kind of falls into line with everyone else.”
We keep calling him a kid, but Josef Nicolai Newgarden is 26 years old. He’s been polished and professional for years -- not always perfect, no doubt, but extremely skilled and well prepared, improving with each race. He didn’t get to IndyCar’s best team by chance; he earned it. So, too, did his family.
Racing wasn’t Newgarden’s only sporting interest in his youth. He had promise as a baseball player. He was good at basketball. He was a typical all-around American kid when it came to sports. He played them all, some quite well. His dad wanted him to pursue baseball, but Josef chose racing.
“He hoped that I'd become a New York Yankees player one day,” Newgarden said of his dad. “I liked playing baseball like that. I liked basketball, too, but I always wanted a go-kart. I was like, ‘Dad, please can we get a go-kart?’ and it didn't happen until I was 13. That's when he kind of finally caved.”
Thank goodness he did. This championship has pushed INDYCAR forward into a new era. Like Newgarden, the series is progressing with each race. It’s going somewhere. When Paul Tracy called Helio Castroneves “champ” during a radio exchange on the NBCSN broadcast, it put to rest the bitterness and angst of the split. Everything is on the same page, has been for some time, but it finally feels as if that cloud has stopped following.
The series is progressing in terms of advancing talent in an orderly, defined pattern. It’s progressing in terms of depth and parity, even if Team Penske took four of the top five in the final standings. It’s progressing in terms of continuity and repetition of schedule, and it’s progressing with the help of its broadcast partners.
Certainly, there is room for improvement. More teams, more cars, more races and more manufacturers are essential. A longer, properly paced schedule would be ideal. More crossover from drivers of other disciplines at Indianapolis has potential to expand the audience. But considering where the situation was 15 years ago, the unfolding of the new era is welcome.
The driver ushering in the new era has welcomed it with a crack of emotion.
“I'd love to have a long successful career like any racer at this level would,” Newgarden said. “Everyone wants that as a driver. You want to be around for a long time and have a lot of success. … There's a lot of talent in the world that are yet to make their mark in IndyCar Series, and you're going to see that for years to come. Hopefully that includes me, too, but there's no telling what the future holds.”
Memo to Joey and Tina Newgarden: Your son did join the New York Yankees. And he won the World Series in his first season with them. Your sacrifice is worthy of his admiration. And ours.