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VOL. 40 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 27, 2016

Hendersonville's Newgarden has front-row seat for 100th Indianapolis 500

By Tom Wood

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Josef Newgarden of Hendersonville takes off his helmet following his qualifying run for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’ll start on the front row of Sunday’s race.

-- Ap Photo/Darron Cummings

Like the speeds he’ll be reaching in this weekend’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, it is neither a stretch nor a cliché to say Josef Newgarden is living life in the fast lane.

The years have gone by in a blur for the 25-year-old Nashville/Hendersonville native who has spent nearly half his life behind the wheel of various levels of motorsports competition – beginning at age of 13 when his father drove Josef 200 miles to New Castle, Indiana, to participate in kart races.

Now, a decade after winning three karting crowns, Newgarden is a legitimate contender to win Sunday’s Centennial edition of the greatest spectacle in racing.

Newgarden will start in the middle of the front row in his blue No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet on Sunday, qualifying with a speed of 230.700 miles per hour.

Only pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe was faster at 230.760, edging out Newgarden as the final qualifier.

If successful – and 2016 has been a roller coaster ride thus far – it would make him Nashville’s first home-grown Indianapolis 500 champion. Two-time champ Dario Franchitti was a Franklin resident and married to actress Ashley Judd when he won in 2010 and 2012.

For his part, Newgarden says he just wants to win Indy, regardless of whether it’s this year or another. But he admits winning the Centennial running would be special in many ways.

“Most guys, if you ask them, they want to win the Indianapolis 500. It doesn’t matter what year you win it. You’ll take any win you can get, any year,” says Newgarden, who in 2015 registered two wins, two second-place finishes and one pole position start, and finished seventh in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

“Winning the Indianapolis 500 any year is going to be the biggest win of your career, so it really doesn’t matter. You want to win any race you can, it doesn’t matter.”

But the biggest career benefits might come off the track, he adds.

“With it being the 100th running, there may be a little more pressure, but it might bring some more reward to it … a little more to-do about it if you win, a little more coverage from that standpoint.

“So if you’re going to win it, the 100th year is a good year to win it. But you take it no matter what year.”

Newgarden is currently in 12th place in the 2016 points standings, with his best finish coming at Alabama (third).

Team owner Ed Carpenter – Newgarden’s third boss in as many seasons – thinks his protégé has the makings of an Indy 500 champion.

“Josef is definitely one of the up-and-coming stars in IndyCar. I believe 100 percent that he is a championship-caliber contender,” explains Carpenter, 35.

“Winning is a priority, not only for the Indianapolis 500 but for the team championship. That’s what we’re trying to do. His talent has developed and improved each year. There’s no doubt that 2015 was a breakout year for him.”

With a dozen years in the driver’s seat, Newgarden was asked about his long-term goals in the sport, say a dozen years from now when he’s a ripe, old 37.

Might he possibly be a driver/owner like Carpenter or having retired to field a team like Mario and Michael Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Rahal and other Indy 500 legends?

Some have wondered if he wants to race in NASCAR someday; his Southern charm, blond hair, good looks, Hollywood smile and hard-charging driving ability would make him an instant star on the NASCAR circuit.

“I’m interested in a lot of motorsports. IndyCar racing to me is the best stuff on the planet, in my opinion,” he says.

“If you’re looking for the closest competition, the most bad-ass racing, you can’t beat IndyCar. But from a selfish standpoint, I want to drive everything.

“Drivers can get that way, they’re a little bit selfish – they want to win at everything. So I’d love to drive in NASCAR at some point, run some races, get to mix it up with those guys. I love IndyCar now, but eventually I’d love to try everything.”

As for long-range goals: “Another 12 years would be amazing. If I’m lucky enough to be involved that long … still racing would be the goal, with a lot of success. That’s why you do it.

“I’d probably want to race as long as I could. Until my body said I no longer could or wasn’t quick enough and I couldn’t keep up in the race car with everybody else.

“So that would be my first goal, and after that, looking beyond it, I really don’t know.

“I don’t know if I’d want to be a team owner. There’s a lot more stress and challenges in that role that seem daunting to me, especially right now. That would be a little more tricky.”

Newgarden, who still spends a lot of time in Hendersonville where he went to high school, hopes to go to college and get a marketing degree. That sounds like something he’d need if he wanted to field his own race team, but he says the sport itself has been his classroom.

“It’s funny, but in racing, you get such an education – not only from the sporting side but from the business side. I feel like I’ve almost gotten an education because of my involvement in the industry,” he adds.

“Having to figure out the business portion of it, I think that’s going to serve me well in the future in whatever endeavor I want to pursue. I’ve gotten so much knowledge in everything that it takes on the business side to get the dollars to go racing. But how I’ll apply that knowledge to future uses, I’m not really sure.”

He knows there’s no such thing as a free ride in IndyCar racing, where it will cost more than $1 million to field a car for Sunday’s race. An entire season?

“It costs millions. I won’t go into the numbers and budgets, but it’s multiple millions. So you have to find big-time money,” Newgarden points out.

“There are serious partnerships that you have to acquire in order to make it happen. Finding the dollars, finding the partners it’s going to take to make that happen is really our bread and butter. If we can’t do that, we can’t actually turn a wheel on a race track.”

He thinks of everyone in racing as “problem-solvers” and says the drivers play an integral role in attracting team sponsors.

“We’re quite involved. Drivers are a lot more involved in that aspect more than in any other sport on the planet,” he says. “You don’t have to go to an NFL player and have them hit you up on why they should be playing in the NFL and why you should support their team.

“Race car drivers have got to be able to pitch themselves and their group to people and make it work.

“If they don’t have the money, they can’t race, a lot of times. ... You’ve got to be a salesman.”

That kind of thinking should serve Newgarden well, both on and off the track, says Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University.

“Winning Indy is transformative for any driver,” Favorito explains.

“Winning the Centennial, assuming that the driver has an interest in growing his brand and will take the time to do it, can bring even wider opportunities that can extend beyond the normal window of say, a week or so.”

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