When you think of auto racing in Tennessee, your mind almost always turns to the small dirt tracks littered across the eastern third of the state, NASCAR or perhaps drag strips. But a Hendersonville native has made a major impact in the once-popular American open-wheel circuit, which now operates as the Verizon IndyCar Series. (Its signature event is the Indianapolis 500, a much-heralded race held each year on Memorial Day weekend that, in certain circles, marks the real unofficial kickoff to summer.) Making his home state proud was Josef Newgarden – maybe the best athlete from Tennessee whose name you’ve never heard – who captured this year’s series championship.
Before having joined Team Penske prior to the start of the 2017 season, the 27-year-old Newgarden paid his dues by working his way through the minor leagues of open-wheel racing. In 2012, he got his first big break when former Indy Racing League driver Sarah Fisher gave him a shot with her team. Newgarden toiled in obscurity for Fisher, but his stock rose slightly after it was rebranded CFH Racing, a team co-owned by Fisher and Ed Carpenter, another Indy driver turned owner.
The youngster won two races in 2015 for CFH, which was later rechristened Ed Carpenter Racing after Fisher left the sport. Those victories in Alabama and at Toronto, were followed by a win in Iowa in 2016 for Ed Carpenter Racing, a remarkable feat considering that he had crashed out at the Texas Motor Speedway just weeks earlier.
Signs of potential greatness were definitely there; as a result, Roger Penske and his associates, seeing a budding superstar in a snake-bitten youngster having driven for underfunded teams, tapped Newgarden to join the big boys at Team Penske,
Owned by the legendary Roger Penske, the team is the premier name in auto racing. Penske has multiple NASCAR and American open-wheel championships on his resume. He’s won multiple races at Indianapolis as an owner and he provided opportunities to eventual greats like Al Unser, Sr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Will Power, Rick Mears and Rusty Wallace.
Newgarden wasted little time proving his mettle and that he belonged alongside such legends both past and present by winning four races in 2017, including runs at Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Alabama and St. Louis. He would clinch the championship with a podium finish at Sonoma in Northern California’s wine country. Newgarden likely will be a force in open-wheel racing for a while to come, as well. He has financial support from one of the sport’s most venerable figures in Penske, whose team makes a habit of competing at – and winning many – of the stops along the circuit.
One question that remains, however, is whether he can be a key figure in restoring IndyCar racing back to the glory days the sport enjoyed before it was fractured in 1996 by Sam George (whose family owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). That year, the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, which sanctioned all open-wheel racing in the United States, dissolved when George created a new circuit (the Indy Racing League) with drivers loyal to him.
The split nearly ruined open-wheel racing in North America, as Penske and Newman-Haas (which was owned in part by the late actor Paul Newman) remained in CART, with those drivers competing almost exclusively on temporary road courses.
Conversely, car owner and four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt went with George, whose league was largely comprised of young and inexperienced drivers, diluting the market but with a diminished product. The league benefited from the addition of Tony Stewart and the fans he brought with him, but it took a step back when longtime driver Scott Brayton was killed during practice at Indianapolis.
The split was bitter, it drove a rift between racing legends and IndyCar has never been the same ever since. It enjoyed a brief resurgence thanks to Danica Patrick, but she eventually left for NASCAR, from which she will be released at this season’s end.
American drivers such as Alexander Rossi (who won the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2016), third-generation driver Marco Andretti and second-generation competitor Graham Rahal have had only sporadic success. So could the Tennessean Newgarden be the next hope in IndyCar? Only time will tell …