Nashville, Tennessee, native Josef Newgarden, 27, won four races and finished nine times in the top three during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, his sixth year competing at the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing. Notably, it was the affable Newgarden’s first year driving for the always-front-running Team Penske-Chevrolet organization, an opportunity he seized to become the first American IndyCar champion since Ryan Hunter-Reay accomplished the feat in 2012. With IndyCar steadily increasing its once almost-forgotten presence on the U.S. racing scene, Newgarden has established himself firmly as one of the faces of the current series—and the future.
Automobile Magazine: Weren’t you supposed to play baseball?
Josef Newgarden: It’s probably my dad who said I was a good baseball player. I don’t think I was a bad player, but I didn’t start growing until 17, so I was always behind. But I always wanted to race go-karts. My dad caved when I was 13. We searched for a kart track near Nashville. New Castle Motorsports Park in Indiana was the closest place—300 miles one way. We raced there from when I was 13 to 15.
AM: Were you naturally quick immediately?
JN: [In karts and then Skip Barber racing], it was a matter of getting my confidence. In motorsports you have to have a little bit of confidence in yourself to be good. I didn’t really naturally have that; when I first drove a go-kart, I felt overwhelmed. Three, four races into karting, I started finding my rhythm. I could kind of naturally understand how to go through a corner and maximize each part of the corner. I started gaining confidence, and then I was good at it. Same when I got into cars. I wrecked in my first weekend. I was not confident in myself. Then I went out the next day and won.
AM: Does your rise since then seem meteoric?
JN: The junior stuff all happened quickly. I only raced in the junior series in cars for about four years. … Winning at the Formula Ford Festival in ’08 was a great opportunity through the Team USA scholarship, and it gets you some notoriety. I then went to the European side for a couple of years until I ran out of funding. Came home, one year of Indy Lights, won the championship, and then—boom!—to the professional level. Then to finally get in a position where you can win a championship, that took six years. It was more of a grind.
AM: How did you integrate so well into Team Penske?
JN: I think I was absolutely prepared for the opportunity. I’d had five years in IndyCar before. Plugging me into Penske was more a matter of how was I going to adapt. The big changes were the setups, the philosophy of the way they drove the car, trying to learn where they were good and why they were good. I learned a whole different way to set up the car, a whole different way to drive the car.
AM: What was that difference?
JN: When I first drove the Penske car, it was very uncomfortable. That’s just a personal thing. A lot of that’s just down to the way the setup is, the way they run their damper program. I just had to learn to become comfortable with the car and adjust things within my driving style and within their setup, and I just kind of became comfortable with everything.
AM: Who is the toughest competitor you’ve faced?
JN: Scott Dixon is right at the top. I would put Will Power very, very equal with him, and I’d put Simon Pagenaud very equal, too. Those three are the most difficult to beat week in and week out.
AM: Who’s the best you’ve raced that no one’s ever heard of?
JN: Oh, man. Great question. I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone that just had ungodly talent that never made it. A couple of guys kind of fell off the grid. … I thought this guy [in Formula Ford], Graham Carroll, was really good, really, really talented.
AM: If you could drive any race car?
JN: The ’94 Penske-Mercedes Indy car, “The Beast.”
AM: What was your first road car?
JN: The first street car I ever drove was a Mercury Mountaineer. I had a ’94 Cadillac Eldorado that my grandfather had. The first car I ever purchased was my black BMW M4. It was a play off my dream car as a kid, a black E46 M3. When they came out with the E92, I didn’t really like that.
AM: Worst road car you ever drove?
JN: Probably the Eldorado! It sounded the worst, but it was also a great car in its own way. It was a couch rolling down the street. It was the sloppiest vehicle I’ve ever driven as far as, like, the suspension feel. That’s why I think of it as a La-Z-Boy going down the road.
AM: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JN: Oh, man. Hopefully still in racing. I think in today’s age this is a little bit harder to sell, but back in the ’60s and ’70s doing multiple forms of motorsports was normal. I would love to do some F1. I’d love to run IndyCar more. I’d like to try NASCAR. I’d like to run sports cars. Seeing myself in five years, I hope I get a crack at a lot of different forms of motorsports and find some success in a lot of them.