Newgarden quickly accelerates from go-kart rider to rising Indy Lights driver

Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 10:05pm
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Josef Newgarden 

While many kids growing up in Tennessee find a passion for NASCAR, Josef Newgarden had other racing dreams. 

“Ever since I was 3 or 4 years old, I wanted to race a go-kart,” Newgarden said. “I begged my dad to take me all the time, but he didn’t take me until I was 13.”

From that point on, the two drove the 300-plus miles from Hendersonville to New Castle Motorsports Park (just east of Indianapolis) so Newgarden could compete on the weekends. Those trips put the wheels in motion for Newgarden to make his way to Indy. 

By 16, Newgarden was traveling all over the country to compete in the Skip Barber National Championship, and his success in that series led him to a Team USA Scholarship, which pays for young drivers to compete in prestigious Formula Ford races in England. In the fall of 2008, while his classmates were kicking off their junior year at Pope John Paul II High School, Newgarden packed his bags and moved to Oxford, England. 

During the program, Newgarden made history, becoming the first American driver ever to win the Formula Ford Festival.

“There’s always nerves with whatever you’re doing in racing, so there were a lot of nerves going into the race like there are every weekend,” Newgarden said. “But to be able to go over and win as an American was a big deal. … It was a very cool thing.” 

Seeing the competitive nature and the ability to grow in Europe, Newgarden decided to move to England permanently for both the 2009 and 2010 seasons. 

“I got a lot of good training over there. But beyond that, the life experience was phenomenal,” he said.

Newgarden, now 20, is spending this year as a rookie in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, inching his way to becoming a professional. 

Former Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt, who founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2001 after a racing accident left him quadriplegic, first saw Newgarden when he was 15 and racing go-karts. He said as an owner at this level, you have to keep your finger on the pulse, so he followed Newgarden’s racing in Europe. When Newgarden decided to return to the States, the two connected.

“All around he’s committed, which is the first thing you look for in a young racer,” Schmidt said. “This is what Josef lives, eats and breathes, and he’s 100 percent devoted.”

Newgarden has proven himself so far this season, leading the championship with three podium performances in his first five races, including winning the Firestone Freedom 100 on May 27 in his first-ever oval race. He said there’s a lot of pressure each weekend when running in front of the big Indy car teams, and he has never raced a lot of the tracks they’re running this year. In Europe, he only raced road courses. And with a schedule of both oval and road courses this year, he’s still adjusting.

“You have to have a good team behind you that can get you up to speed quickly,” Newgarden said. “And luckily my team has a lot of knowledge and experience, and I have a lot of people around me that can guide me in the right direction.”

 Teammate Conor Daly has been racing with Newgarden since they were teens in go-karts. After Daly’s first big win in the 2008 Skip Barber National Championship — in which Newgarden took second — they traveled to Europe together as part of the Team USA Scholarship.

“We both help each other though, because we push so hard to beat each other, and we always seem to be swapping first place,” Daly said. 

When they’re not racing, these young drivers are training, trying to get new sponsor deals and testing cars for the upcoming year. But the most difficult thing, Newgarden said, is to keep your confidence up. 

“There’s going to be a lot of stuff that tries to push you down in this sport, so you need a lot of tenacity,” he said.