Hendersonville racer poised to capture Indy Lights title

Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 12:44am

Josef Newgarden will pass on the bubbly.

Even if he clinches the Firestone Indy Lights Championship this weekend in Kentucky, the Hendersonville native won’t be uncorking the champagne.

Newgarden doesn’t drink alcohol, which is probably a good thing since he is only 20 years old.

“Water is good for me,” Newgarden said. “After you have been working inside of a racecar, just to get some very, very cold water is very nice. I’m not fussy. I’m not difficult to please when I get out of the racecar.”

Newgarden can twist the lid on the water bottle and go crazy if he finishes 13th place or better at 11 a.m. Sunday (Versus) at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. That shouldn’t be a difficult task considering the way he has raced in his first Indy Lights season.

He been victorious five times. That includes winning the Firestone Freedom 100 in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — the home of the Indianapolis 500.

In his last race, in Baltimore on Sept. 4, after starting 14th, he battled his way toward the front and finished second. That put him in the position he is in now to clinch this weekend. If he doesn’t, he can still wrap up the title at the season’s last race on Oct. 16 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We were hoping it was going to go this way,” said Newgarden, who races for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. “Things turned out absolutely how we could have wanted.”

Newgarden has been racing since he was 13, starting at the go-kart level, and accelerating to the Skip Barber National Series by the time he was 16. But he said his career really benefited from his decision to live the last two years in England, where he competed in Formula Ford races.

“The competition and living by myself and growing as a person was a big advantage, living over there for a couple years,” he said. “Getting that experience made it a lot easier to come back over here and have confidence. ... I feel very fortunate. I am one of those lucky kids that gets to do something with his life that he loves.”

Newgarden said more than a handful of friends and family members plan to make the four-hour drive from Hendersonville to Sparta this weekend.

If he captures the Indy Lights championship, it could close one chapter of his racing life and possibly springboard him to the next level. Newgarden hopes to be racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series as soon as next year.

Reaching the sport’s highest level and cruising alongside stars such as Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti is the ultimate goal for Newgarden.

“It is a young age to be able to hopefully do something like that. It would be a big deal,” Newgarden said. “It is what I have been working for most of my young life and what I have dedicated time and my efforts to. I certainly want to see it happen. ... If it didn’t work out, it would definitely be a shame. I feel comfortable we are going to have some success, hopefully, in the future.”