Team Penske won’t know until Thursday if Josef Newgarden will be cleared to drive on Friday and take part in the Indianapolis Grand Prix. But that hasn’t stopped the organization from preparing for all potential outcomes, as young IndyCar veteran Santino Ferrucci has been signed to stand in for Newgarden if he does not pass IndyCar Medical’s cognitive tests later this week.
Penske president Tim Cindric walked RACER through the process of readying the No. 2 Chevy for an event where the current identity of its driver is unknown and how the team found its stand-by solution.
“The first thing was making sure Josef has the best care possible and the best advice possible, and then the other part is, what’s the Plan B?” he said.
“It’s obviously our responsibility to be sure we go out there and perform the best we can in his absence, if that’s what it comes to. So then you look at how much time is available. There’s not a lot of time – if there was an off-weekend, it probably would be a different process, but it’s four consecutive weekends of racing for us.
“As you look at it and you’re making a determination of who you put in the seat, obviously, Santino’s done a good job under difficult circumstances. When you look at guys that have driven this year, he’s done a really good job for Rahal at Texas and Juncos at Detroit filling in for guys, and he’s pretty current with the car.”
A call to the Connecticut native, who finished 10th at the Indy 500 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, to inquire about his availability returned some surprising answers.
“When I called him, and I don’t really know the kid, he was one of the people that we would consider – just to try and understand his circumstances,” Cindric said. “I also assumed that he was going to be driving this weekend in the [NASCAR] Xfinity race, and he said that yes, he was entered in it, which isn’t a positive from where we sit. Trying to do double-duty and substitute for somebody is probably a difficult task.
“But he said that if he had this opportunity with us, he would forego that, and this would be his first priority. And it just happened to be that he was headed to Charlotte when we spoke Sunday night to get in the Chevrolet simulator Monday morning to get ready for the Xfinity race. And we happened to have a slot that Josef was coming to Charlotte to do on Monday to run the IndyCar [for the Indy GP] the Chevy simulator.
“Turns out his Xfinity time window was exactly the same time we had for Josef, so we got that all lined up for him with us. We got him a simulator slot, he came in before that and met the group and we got some basic measurements on him, got his uniform measurements so we can do as much as we can to have him look part but also be prepared for the part.”
Led by crew chief Travis Law, the No. 2 Chevy mechanics will have all the equipment they need to fit Ferrucci to the car on Thursday if it’s required.
“We spoke to the Dreyer & Reinbold guys, and we’ll pick up his gear at 10 o’clock on Thursday when we get to Indy, rather worry about losing it and shipping somewhere else,” Cindric said. “They were nice enough to let us borrow his seat and seat belts that he used in the 500, so we don’t have to try and recreate some of these things he’s already comfortable with.”
Newgarden’s visit to IndyCar Medical on Thursday will involve taking the ImPACT concussion test. The series performs baseline ImPACT tests on all of its drivers and maintains that database to use as a comparison tool in the event of new potential trauma to the head.
In the case of Jack Harvey after his crash at Texas, Colton Herta in practice for the Indy 500, and Newgarden at Iowa, follow-up ImPACT tests are triggered when a crash takes place and the accelerometers placed inside each driver’s earpieces register a hit of 80Gs or more. With Newgarden, who was checked and released from the infield care center — but not cleared to drive – IndyCar Medical scheduled a Thursday return while he was at the track on Sunday. Soon after, he collapsed and was taken to a Des Moines hospital for brain scans and overnight observation before returning home Monday morning.
“We’ll have all that stuff for Santino on standby and on Thursday, we’ll get a determination at some point Thursday on where things go,” Cindric said.
“Right now the car is going to leave here as Josef’s car, so it’ll be all set up, and it’ll have his kit and everything in it. And if we need to change it out, we’ll be prepared to do that. Then you have to do paperwork and get everybody in place in the right ways between the series and our sponsors and Chevrolet and Santino himself. Now, we’re just waiting for the process take care of itself.”
Newgarden has been on an epic run this season, winning four races so far — the same amount he won en route to the 2017 and 2019 IndyCar championships — as he fights to add another crown to his collection. Despite his success and the momentum he’s carrying at the moment, Cindric says the beauty of the computer-based ImPACT concussion assessment testing process is doctors do not make an opinion-based conclusion.
“From what I learned about the protocols and the testing that’s done, they’re objective, they’re not subjective,” he said. “So it’s my understanding that this isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of will the driver pass or fail? That’s all predetermined by the results of taking the test. The decision is made in an objective way and it is not any one person or any group of people that have an opinion on the matter.”
Penske’s 31-year-old star is ready to accept the outcome of the test when it’s received, and the team is ready to accept whatever the Tennessean wants to do after the results are in.
“Really, it’s Josef’s decision, even if he passes all the tests, and if he chose to not drive for whatever reason, or there was at any point in time where he felt like this wasn’t the right thing to do at the moment, we’re fine with his choice,” Cindric said.
“You know, we’re in this for the long term. And so is he. I just talked to him in the past hour and he’s in a really good place. He understands that whichever way it goes, it goes. Today, he’s said he feels like he’ll be ready to go, but we’ll know for sure on Thursday and he said he’s just doing his best to just rest and do whatever they advise him to do. And whether it takes a week, two weeks, or a year, we’ll be ready for him.”