INDYCAR Voices: Jeff Olson

If you’re looking for evidence of the importance of championships to racers, watch the replay of Josef Newgarden’s reaction after he gets out of the car Sunday at Laguna Seca. Choking back tears, voice cracking with emotion, he explains the importance of it all.

“It’s been my dream since I was a kid,” he says, trying his best not to lose it. “I’m just really thankful for everyone, man, that’s done everything for me.”

Newgarden’s second championship wasn’t expected to receive a response that moving. Normally composed and articulate, Newgarden let the feelings go and showed what it truly means. Winning championships isn’t about money or fame or trophies, it’s about a deeply rooted passion for racing and the culmination of a lifetime of devotion and effort.

This one wasn’t easy, either. Even though he led the NTT IndyCar Series standings since early June, Newgarden was relentlessly pursued by Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon for nearly four months. Newgarden won four of the season’s 17 races, but Rossi and Pagenaud were never far behind in points. In the end, Newgarden’s eighth-place finish Sunday gave him a 25-point margin over Pagenaud, 33 over Rossi.

It was that close. Perhaps that explains Newgarden’s unexpected outpouring in victory lane.

“It really hit me,” he said in the post-race press conference. “It just really, really hit me on the in-lap. I don't know why. I was just so emotional. I didn't quite get that way in the first one. I don't know if you don't have quite the respect for it or what it is. … You can win a race every week. When you're in a season, those opportunities come every single week, but to win a championship, it doesn't come every week. That opportunity seldom is there, and if it is there, you really want to capitalize on it because you never know if you're going to get that again.”

While Newgarden was securing the championship, one of the sport’s rising stars was celebrating the second victory of his rookie season. Afterward, Colton Herta was focused on 2020.

(I) just look forward into next year,” he said. “Obviously I'm really proud of what I did this year and what the team has been able to do and given me the car to do, but you kind of have to take it in the off-season. I like to take a month off and not really do much and then kind of look into focal points of what I lacked.”

Not much, certainly. The same could be said of the series itself. The competitive nature of the championship and a season-ending win by a rookie fit precisely with this thought: IndyCar is as good as it’s been in years.

It’s competitive, entertaining and compelling. It has a deep pool of talent. It has an intriguing mix of veterans and newcomers. It has balance between its manufacturers. It has balance among its top teams. It’s strong from top to bottom. It has a first-rate broadcasting partner. It has unusual and complex characters. It has story lines and drama. It has a growing and passionate audience.

It has leadership focused on strengthening the series through a defined plan. It is expanding but not over its skis. It has a consistent schedule from year to year. It has made safety a priority. It is listening to its drivers and teams. Its changes are properly communicated and implemented.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of IndyCar’s year-by-year improvement is its standing in the global motorsports scene. It has become a destination for young drivers worldwide. IndyCar isn’t just an option anymore; it’s a place young drivers aim to be. With steady growth comes prestige, and with prestige comes talent.

“You're seeing great opportunity for young drivers from all over the world,” Newgarden said during a teleconference Tuesday. “They're able to come to these championships that are run in the United States and feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. They feel the possibility of working hard and getting the right opportunity and making the most of that opportunity can potentially reward you with a top-level ride and an opportunity to compete at the highest level with the best people in the sport. And that's really all you can ask for is that opportunity. That's the great part about American racing is they get that. It's cool to be a part of that and cool to see it continuing to work right now.”

IndyCar is a stage on which someone like Newgarden can let out his pent-up feelings for everyone to see. His emotion says it all: This is a prize worth winning. It is that good. As good as it has been in decades. That’s by design, not by chance.

And it’s only going to get better.