ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Somewhere in the delightful weirdness of Road America’s campgrounds grows Josef’s “New Garden,” a makeshift flower garden bearing likenesses of Josef Newgarden seemingly sprouting from the soil.
It’s the work of some inventive campers who are likely to meet their garden’s namesake at some point this weekend.
“I have to go see them,” Newgarden said Friday between practice sessions for Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at the historic road course. “You get that type of stuff around here. People that come and camp, have a good time, make the whole weekend out of it. It's a tradition for a lot of people. I think it's fun to be part of that atmosphere.”
KOHLER GRAND PRIX: Practice 2 results; Combined practice results
That atmosphere – fans dressing up in racing-themed costumes, playing racing-related games at their campsites and, yes, even dedicating gardens to Newgarden – are intertwined with the drivers’ love of the 14-turn, 4.014-mile road course nestled in the woods between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They’ve been racing here since 1956, but the legendary course is relatively new to younger drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The series renewed the link between the circuit and Indy cars in 2016, when it brought Road America back to the schedule after a nine-year absence. Only four currently active drivers – Will Power, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais – competed in the final Champ Car World Series race at Road America in 2007. The two series – Champ Car and INDYCAR – unified under the INDYCAR banner in 2008, but Road America didn’t return to the schedule until 2016.
“When you get the setup right and you put a lap together, it’s very satisfying,” Bourdais said after clocking the third-fastest lap of the day in the second practice session. “It’s probably one of the most fascinating tracks we go to, as far as drivers are concerned. You really have to let it flow and let it go. It’s really where the cars are stretching their legs and looking fast, even on TV. It’s always great fun.”
This year, teams and drivers return to Road America with a twist. A universal aero kit is new to the series this season, and this is just the third road course in its history. Newgarden won at Barber Motorsports Park in April and Power won the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May before winning the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
“It’s definitely changed the setup a bit,” Power said after running fourth quick in Friday’s second session. “The track was really low-grip at the beginning of both sessions, and then got better. It was a little bit hard to pick what to do. Obviously, Josef’s really quick, so we’ll have plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”
Newgarden, the 27-year-old defending series champion, had the fastest lap in both sessions in the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. His effort in the second session – 1 minute, 42.6279 seconds (140.804 mph) – was the fastest of the day. During the break between sessions, he declared his love for Road America.
“It's just a great driver's track,” Newgarden said. “It's a great Indy car track. You look at the cars around here, it's exciting to be around this place. Not only to drive them, but I think to watch all the other support series. There's just kind of a buzz about it. You feel an energy around this place that you don't get everywhere.
“It just feels like a proper Indy car track. People use that terminology a lot, which I think is very fitting. It's just an awesome track. You don't get many places that are four miles, so you really open up the legs of the car. You really have to put it on the limit on high-speed corners to try to get the most out of it.”
And get your face in a garden in the campground.
The final practice of the weekend begins at noon ET Saturday, ahead of Verizon P1 Award qualifying at 4 p.m. Both stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, youtube.com/indycar and the INDYCAR Mobile app. NBCSN carries a same-day qualifying telecast at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday’s 55-lap race airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network starting at 12:30 p.m.