INDIANAPOLIS – When Josef Newgarden came up with the idea to host a charity ping pong tournament involving fellow Indianapolis 500 drivers, the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion had fun and fundraising uppermost in mind. But he also knew he had a built-in competitive advantage.
Newgarden has been playing and excelling in the game for years. It showed on Wednesday, when Newgarden and his race engineer, Brian Campe, defeated fellow Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves and Casey Eason, his data acquisition engineer, in the championship game.
The tournament raised money for Serious Fun Children’s Network, the charitable partner of INDYCAR. Firestone, Big Machine Vodka, Direct Supply and Barista Parlor were primary sponsors of the event held at Smash Social, a ping pong club, coffee house and beer/wine bar in downtown Indianapolis.
“I’ve really always wanted to do a ping pong charity event around the Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “We put this together in about three or four weeks, so I’m pretty proud of the effort, actually, from everyone to get this going.
“The main goal is to raise money for Serious Fun Children’s Network, who I fortunately have gotten to work with this year. They’re a partner with INDYCAR now and it’s such a great charity to help kids and families all over the world.”
A total of 11 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers participated in the fun featuring two-person teams that included crew members and local media. Other drivers included Scott Dixon, Jack Harvey, JR Hildebrand, Tony Kanaan, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens.
“I’ve always loved ping pong,” Newgarden said. “You get a little hand-eye (coordination) to kind of just help you out in certain situations to be faster with your reflexes. But to me it’s a fun game to play. It’s easy to play, it’s low stress for race car drivers to come out and enjoy a charity event. It’s kind of a perfect marriage, in my opinion.”
Low stress maybe, but the competitive juices quickly flowed to the top. Castroneves and Kanaan put on a spirited battle in their first-round match. Castroneves was so excited after beating his fellow Brazilian that he performed a mock fence climb of the netting separating the game table area from the bar.
“If you know race car drivers, you put them in a competitive situation, they want to win,” Newgarden said before the competition started. “I think we’re going to have a ton of fun, but the competition is going to be stiff when you bring a lot of race car drivers together.”
Newgarden’s team may have been victorious but the big winner was Serious Fun, which took in $23,000 in sponsor donations.