Depending on who you ask, the discovery of the Chalice of Excellence happened deep in a huge cavity in the Swiss Alps, or in an Iowa cave where it was left by European explorers, or in an ancient Mesopotamian burial ground. It possibly once belonged to an ancient king, may or may not contain metals normally found in meteorites, and just might have supernatural powers.
On the other hand, it could be a simple trinket that's been given a new purpose after gathering dust in someone's attic for years.
Nobody on Josef Newgarden's No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet crew really knows for sure.
The fuzziness of the origin story notwithstanding, one thing is certain: The positive energy created inside the No. 2 crew by the bronze-colored chalice adorned with two silver dragons cannot be ignored.
“It's been quite amazing. When we first brought it in, everybody loved the idea,” said Josh Kohli, the No. 2 car data acquisition engineer, who along with his driver, the team's race engineer Gavin Ward and chief mechanic Travis Law formed the brain trust that nurtured the chalice idea.
“Everyone thinks about the chalice and you kind of take notice of the things people do. Normally, maybe someone does something special and you might not notice it, and now little things are being recognized more and that's kind of just brings everybody up and definitely boosts morale.”
The Chalice of Excellence recognizes the No. 2 team member who distinguishes himself in action on a race weekend. It was awarded for the first time in March at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Newgarden handed it to Law for his yeoman's work over the offseason.
The spirit of the chalice pervades much of the interactions among the crew these days. It's common to hear actions in the Penske shop referred to as “chalice worthy,” although sometimes there's a definite sarcastic undertone.
“It's interesting to see people asking: 'Is that chalice worthy? We are only a couple of events into the season, you can see how excited everyone is and how much they want to get it,” said Law.
“It's the small stuff that adds up on a race weekend. When you do things right, you feed off each other and you want to do more and be the catalyst. It's really cool how something like this can bring a team together.”
It's difficult to argue with the success it has helped bring Newgarden. So far in 2019, he has one win and three podiums in five races and leads the NTT IndyCar Series points standings with 182 heading into the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 26.
Although it can only be awarded to the worthy, distinguishing oneself from the crowd can take many forms. That decision is left to the one currently in possession of the chalice.
“The rules are pretty loose,” said Ward. “Whoever holds the chalice can really make up their own mind about who gets it next for whatever reason. It is supposed to be about excellence or about someone who has done something great. It's for the holder to decide.”
When Ward played hockey in England during his time as an engineer with Red Bull Racing, his team called the Hurricanes gave a cane to the player who did something that stood out on the ice. But that's simply coincidence, of course.
Fans might recognize the chalice from its appearance on the NBCSN telecast of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on April 7. That happened because Ward ensured it would be on camera during his driver's postrace interview.
“Josef was being interviewed in front of the timing stand and I thought, 'This would be better if the chalice were in the background,' and I made it happen,” Ward said.
“I was too embarrassed to show my face with it, so I just hid behind the timing stand and put it up there. That gave it a bump: The chalice went from about 40 Instagram followers to about 700 in one day.”
The Instagram profile began in March and has attracted almost 750 followers (https://www.instagram.com/the_chalice_of_excellence/). Its profile proclaims that “Only the most worthy can claim me, but I’m not a one-man chalice ... My dragons breathe hot fire and take champagne showers.”
While it spends lots of time in the pit lane during race weekends, the chalice enjoys a full life away from the track. It's been to bars in Long Beach, mountain biking in North Carolina and spent quality time with three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves.
And it's been filled with many different liquids, including beer, wine and coffee. With the Indy 500 next on the schedule, there's no doubt the No. 2 crew would like to add the traditional victory milk to that list.