Roger Penske was looking to inject some youth into his IndyCar Series line-up with Josef Newgarden. His decision has paid off…
Josef Newgarden arrives right on time; team gear pressed Penske-perfect, but driver looking a little spiritually rumpled.
“Did you get a coffee?” he asks. His voice sounds a touch more gravelly than usual. “Do you mind if I get one? I haven’t slept. I have not slept in, I don’t know how long. Definitely not in the last week and a half. Once I finally get home, it’s going to be really nice to catch up on everything.”
It’s Monday morning, 8:15am, in a tiny cafe attached to a resort in the hills behind Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. Heavy fog rolls through the eucalyptus trees outside. Twelve hours earlier, Newgarden was calling it a night on the seemingly endless post-race media commitments and striding through the dark Sonoma paddock toward the Penske hospitality unit – the only one still lit – where he could finally start to celebrate with his crew. Exactly one year ago, Newgarden spent his Sonoma weekend batting away speculation that he’d signed with Team Penske. Now, in his first season with The Captain, he’s just won the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
The festivities might have taken a toll, but he’s putting on a brave front. Newgarden’s early morning coffee date with RACER is the first in what’s going to be a long grind of press calls scheduled to run for at least four days. It’s a small price to pay in the context of winning a championship, even if IndyCar’s new No. 1 was still waiting for a chance to start processing his achievement.
“Winning the championship didn’t really sink in during the cool-down lap,” he says, nursing a latte. “You’d think it would really hit you in that moment. But when I was being interviewed on pit road, that was the first time I really thought about it and started choking up a little bit. I was thinking about everything that it took to get here and all the people who were invested in it. I don’t think it will sink in fully until I get home and everything has been done, everything has been said.
“I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to promote the series as best I can; trying to get the word out,” he adds. “But as far as the feeling of it, understanding the magnitude, I guess you don’t really realize it until later. So it’s going to be an interesting journey. It’s going to make the off-season a lot nicer. In fact, I’m sure this is going to be the most lovely off-season ever.”
The coronation of any new champion is inevitably followed by attempts to isolate “the moment” – the tipping point that charted the course for the rest of the title battle. From a pure results standpoint, the highlight on Newgarden’s résumé in 2017 was the four-race streak between Toronto and Gateway that yielded three wins and a second, but what really drove his success was how quickly he adapted to his new surrounds. Barring the standard handful of blips – a frustrating month at Indy; a self described “silly” mistake at Texas; another “silly” crash at Watkins Glen – his performance across the season tells a story of progress.
“I don’t really focus on things like the streak,” he says. “I just think of it as a task – we’re doing our jobs. We got to that place because of our experience through the year. The more time we had together, the more I started to figure things out, the more beneficial I was to the team. We just needed time. We needed weekends together, and you can’t buy that.”
Part of that process was figuring out how to click with three alpha teammates. Joining an organization like Team Penske shines a spotlight right into a driver’s very being. Strengths and any weaknesses are laid bare for all within the team to see, as are any tricks learned in the course of putting together a lap time.
“I learned very quickly that if I had something that was better than my teammates in a corner by a tenth or two, as soon as they saw it, it would be applied, and that advantage was no longer there,” says Newgarden. “It’s not something you can keep to yourself and make proprietary. It will be gone. They will have already figured it out and applied it at the next session.
“So you’ve got to be on top of your game, 24/7, and my teammates made me push harder than I’ve ever pushed before. I thought in the past that I was already pushing myself to the maximum, but they made me dig deeper, because I had to.”
Another surprise was the realization that energy is a finite resource. Several previous IndyCar champions have spoken of the mental fatigue that sets in during a title fight, and the difficulty in maintaining the intensity required to deliver peak performance as the season grinds on.
“That’s very, very accurate,” Newgarden says. “When you start the year you are so dialed in. You could debrief for three or four hours, and focus for as long as you need to.
“But as you get through the year – especially when you’re in the championship battle – it starts to drain on you. You really start to fatigue out from all the media you’re doing, all the traveling… And for me it’s a little bit worse, because I’m an introvert. People don’t think I am, but when I’m around people for an extended period of time, I have to go away and decompress afterward. I have to put myself on – like, right now, I’m being me, I’m being genuine, but I’ve also had to turn it on a little bit. And I turn myself back off when I’m away from people. And that wears on me through the year.
“Just to give you an example of how that changes, at this final race, when I was in the engineering room, I got distracted very easily, just because I was fatigued. I’d start looking at my phone, zoning out… I’d still do my debrief with [engineer] Brian [Campe] and make sure he had the info he needed. But it wasn’t as detailed. It started to get a little sloppier. I was just trying to conserve energy. If people saw it they’d be like, ‘Are you taking this seriously?’ It’s got nothing to do with that. I just need to make sure that when I have to go, I can give it as much as I have.”
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