Josef Newgarden Interview: Advice for Young Racers
If you’ve been reading anything K1 Speed-related recently, you’ve probably seen Josef Newgarden’s name come up, as he’ll be the mentor for the Arlington finalists in the Hot Wheels™ IndyCar Junior Grand Prix. But we’ve been selling him short as just the 2017 IndyCar Champion.
When Josef Newgarden beat teammate Simon Pagenaud for the 2017 championship title, he became the fourth American to win an IndyCar title in their first season with Team Penske. He also became the first American to put his hands on the Astor Cup since Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012. In his seven seasons racing in IndyCar, he’s recorded 10 wins, 6 poles, and 22 podiums – a remarkable achievement given that for the first five years he wasn’t racing with the most competitive teams.
He’s currently defending his title from the legendary Scott Dixon and sits within striking distance in second place at the time of this writing, with five races and plenty of points left to play for.
Josef was nominated for Best Driver at the 2018 ESPY Awards, which brought the young gun to the Los Angeles area. While in town, he naturally stopped by the local K1 Speed center in Torrance and took some time out of his hectic schedule to have a chat with us about his karting days, and his advice for young racers looking to pursue racing as a career.
K1 Speed: So we did a little snooping on your website, and saw that you got started in go-karting and racing a little later than usual. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that? What first instilled the need for Josef Newgarden?
Josef Newgarden: Well I was always a big fan of racing when I was a kid, I grew up with it on TV. I guess that was my first exposure – just watching the Indy 500, watching Formula One, watching NASCAR – I watched everything. My dad was always a big racing fan, and my grandfather was too. So that was my exposure.
But my dream was always to have a go-kart when I was a kid. And I wasn’t allowed to. My dad wouldn’t allow me to have one, my mom wouldn’t, they thought it was too dangerous, and they’re very safety conscious. So, you know, I’m a three, four-year-old dreaming about go-karts and I was dreaming about it all the way up until I was 13. But finally, when I turned 13, I convinced my dad. I said, “Hey, let’s try and go go-karting,” and he caved in, which I don’t think was too difficult for him at the end of the day because he’s a big racing fan himself. So, he wanted to go, and we found a great new facility that was just built in the Indianapolis area by an ex-IndyCar guy, Mark Dismore, and we ended up going up there in 2004 from Nashville, Tennessee and I started go-karting. And that was my foray into racing, was getting into karts and learning about it that way.
K1S: Yeah, very cool! Do you remember the first time actually sitting behind the wheel and what that was like? Was it nerve-wracking?
JN: Yeah! The first time I drove a real go-kart, you know, one that had a tube frame chassis, I think it had a 100cc Yamaha Can engine, which is the Junior Yamaha class that I was going to compete in. I think those things had probably… I’ve got to say… 15 horsepower? I think that’s about what the Yamaha cans would make (editor: he’s right!). So pretty powerful kart for a 13-year-old. And I just remember being overwhelmed by it. It was too much speed – you probably go 50, 60 miles an hour in that type of kart, and it was very overwhelming for me. The first time I got on a go-kart track, there were people that were flying by me left and right because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing and I was still trying to get up speed – this is my first practice day. So I do remember it being very overwhelming, but I got used to it! And you know, within about three or four race weekends, we got really fast.
And we were in older equipment than other guys around us, we didn’t have a new kart. We had a kart that wasn’t considered competitive – we were driving a Comet Kart Coyote chassis, I think it was. It was like, this unknown brand that no one runs. So, that’s what I started with. And Margays were actually the karts you needed at this kart track I was at. Margay was the popular brand, the winning chassis you had to be on. So after about four weekends in on my first year, I was getting better and better and we were close to finding a top five (finish), so then my dad and me got a Margay chassis. And this was like, revolutionary. Then we started winning races. And then we did that for a couple more years before we got into cars.
K1S: What lessons from karting have you been able to apply to racing in IndyCar today?
JN: Well, go-karting is for sure, probably the best training ground for an open-wheel car. They’re similar in a lot of respects. I mean, if you want to drive a stock car one day, go-karts are probably not the best training ground. It’s not that it’s a bad training ground, but there may be a better application to train you for that. I think with an open-wheel car, you know they’re generally very lightweight, very nimble, very stiff, very rigid. And karting’s about as rigid of a platform as you can get. There isn’t any suspension in a kart, you’re all off the tire, and the suspension of the tire. And it’s all about precision, it’s all about braking points… You know, the whole premise of karting is learning the basics, really. You’re learning how to brake into a corner, how to trail-brake, you know, where’s the racing line, how do you race guys, how do you get on throttle, how do you set people up, how do you draft, you know all these things you learn in karting, they all translate directly to driving an IndyCar one day – just on a smaller scale. And I think it’s really some of the, and (Ayrton) Senna said it best, it’s one of the purest, if not the purest form of racing. You take out a lot of the politics, you take out a lot of the car equation, you know it’s just down to pure driving. It’s about instinct, it’s about understanding how to race the competition around you, you know, pure driving skills. So, karting’s always been to me one of the most fun things that you can do as a racecar driver.
K1S: Do you still kart today at all?
JN: Oh, yeah. When I can, I try to get to a go-kart track. It’s difficult in a racing season, just because we’re normally quite busy. And we’re normally traveling a lot. I think the only thing you’d worry about with karting is maybe injuring a rib. Nowadays, karting is so physical, and it’s more violent in some respects than an IndyCar. You know, the forces that you’re being put under in the seat, you don’t quite have the padding and the cushioning, you know, all the creature comforts that an IndyCar has. So, you don’t want to bruise a rib or do something that could hurt your professional performance. But whenever there’s time in the off-season I always love to go to a go-kart track.
It’s some of the best fitness that you can get. It’s still the best training that you can get outside of an actual IndyCar. You know, if you’re thinking about how can I get physically more fit, how can I prepare my mind for what I need to do in an IndyCar, karting’s the number one thing you could do. You know, it’s the closest to it, and it’s the best training ground. So yeah, whenever I have time in the off-season I try and go race a TAG kart, or a shifter, something fun, just to keep my mind fresh and my body fresh.
K1 Speed: Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about this Hot Wheels IndyCar Junior Grand Prix event. You’re going to be mentoring the three finalists from Arlington. Just tell us what this will mean to you to mentor these kids in San Francisco come September.
Well, it’s fun for me because karting, you know, I think back to when I was kid karting, and how much I loved IndyCar, and the drivers in IndyCar, and thinking about how cool that’d be to be a part of one day, just to be able to drive those cars. And I like getting to hang out with the young kids of the future, because I used to be one of those. You know, I used to be one of those aspiring racers that just wanted to do that one day. And it always meant so much to me whenever the IndyCar guys would come out and compete with us personally and they would just be out there to have fun. You could tell they were there for no other reason than they love racing, and they wanted to be there to race, and to do it with young kids was something they enjoyed. So, I really appreciated that when I was young guy, so I love being in the position now where I get to go and hang out with these young kids and tell them about racing from my eyes, and what I experienced, and what I think’s important and relay those messages. And also, just have a bit of fun karting with them. I think that’s a total blast for someone like me.
K1S: Definitely, definitely. And speaking of kids, say one comes in here to K1 Speed, has a good time, and thinks about pursuing racing as a career option, what would be the biggest advice that you could give them?
JN: Well, I think with racing you have to view it as a people sport, because, like anything, it takes people to make a career out of what you want to do. I mean, my career was built with a foundation of many, many people. It was people that I came across in karting, in my junior career in cars, and then all the way to the top in the IndyCar series. It’s the people that you meet that help get you a career. In my opinion, you’re not able to make a career out of racing by yourself. It’s never going to happen. So, the most important thing is to never stop seeking help and support from people around you and take care of the people around you, because the people that you surround yourself with, are the people that are going to help you make a career out of racing. And that’s the most important thing. So, it’s really the people that you meet within the sport. That’s going to be one of the most important ingredients for kids. If you don’t take care if those relationships that you build, it’s difficult to make a career out of it. And so that’s one of the most important things in my opinion.
But then also, I would say you have to have a tremendous drive for the sport. There’s going to be many moments in your life where you think you’re racing career is over and it’s not going to work out. There’s been two or three moments where I genuinely thought I was done racing. I didn’t have any support, I didn’t have any financial backing, and I thought I was going to go back to getting a degree in something in college; you know, maybe an engineering degree or a degree in marketing, I mean I didn’t know what I was going to go back and do. But, you’re going to have to many moments like that where you just have to keep pushing through and looking for a different way to make it happen because it just takes so much tenacity and drive to continue to do it. And you have to have that self-belief that you’re able to make that happen. If you don’t have that, just having one of those moments that’s going to knock you back, could be the end of everything for you. You have to be able to push through those and get to that next opportunity. And that next opportunity could be the one that gets you a professional drive.
You can catch Josef Newgarden racing at Mid-Ohio this weekend on Sunday, July 29 at 3pm EST on CNBC.
Like this interview? Check out our other interviews with pro drivers such as Alexander Rossi, Jordan Taylor, Sebastien Bourdais, and Graham Rahal!