It’s Back To Work For IndyCar Champ Newgarden

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 17 2017

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden climbed back into the cockpit this week. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Josef Newgarden reached the expiration date on his offseason earlier this week at Texas Motor Speedway, where the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion hot-lapped during a Chevrolet test session of the new-for-2018 universal aero kit.

Newgarden, of Team Penske, was joined by his previous car-owner/teammate Ed Carpenter and the latter’s latest protégé, Spencer Pigot, for Wednesday’s day-long session around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval.

Newgarden wrapped up his first series championship _ in his debut season with Roger Penske’s juggernaut _ with a second-place finish to teammate/2016 champion Simon Pagenaud on Sept. 17 in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. Two months out of the cockpit amped-up Newgarden’s return to TMS, where he finished 13th after contact on Lap 201 of the 247-lap Rainguard Water Sealers 600 on June 10.

“I happily do every test,” said Newgarden, who will team with Pagenaud and 2016 TMS winner Will Power in Penske’s trimmed-down lineup in 2018. “We’ve got three guys and we only have one (new) car, so I can’t do everything. We have to split it up. But if was up to me, I’d run every test.”

A four-time winner in 2016, Newgarden one-upped Pagenaud by clinching his first title as a Penske “rookie” and the $1-million champion’s prize. The 26-year-old native of Hendersonville, Tenn., distanced Pagenaud by 13 points in the final standings to become the first American driver to win the championship since Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport in 2012.

“I’ll try to do the best job I can to help promote the series,” Newgarden said. “We all love INDYCAR racing, we want it to be as big as possible and I think we’re getting there, but it’s going to take a group. Obviously, there’s a responsibility as the champion to try and relay the message of what INDYCAR is all about and show people why INDYCAR is so cool, why it’s some of the best racing on the planet and you should check it out.

“But it’s going to take all of us _ the series, the drivers _ it’s going to take the decisions we make as far as this new car we’re putting out. It’s not going to come down to just one guy, in my opinion. I feel the responsibility of helping that cause and pushing INDYCAR forward, but I don’t feel the pressure that it’s all on me.”

As for suddenly being famous, Newgarden said not much has changed in his life. “Racing’s funny. You get like this _ I guess if you want to call it this _ a ‘temporaryfame’,^” Newgarden said. “You come to the racetrack and race fans are there then, yeah, you kind of have that ‘famous’ vibe. But if I’m at home in the grocery store, I don’t get bothered that often. … It’s not like I’m Brad Pitt walking down the street, so it’s not that level of difficulty.

“It certainly brings me more comfort being a part of Team Penske and you sort of naturally feel more at-ease within the group. I’ve certainly felt that over the last month and a-half. It really makes me excited to get to work again this offseason and try to do it again. You feel like you deserve to be there with the team and working hard to do it again. That’s kind of the feeling that has changed for me.”

Series officials announced in April 2016 their plan to scrap the aero kits provided by OEM engine suppliers Chevrolet and Honda in favor of universal bodywork. In addition to lower costs across the board, the transition to the universal kit is an effort to make the cars safer while increasing the ability to pass. The new kit is designed to reduce turbulence and make it easier for cars to follow and pass each other on the track _ not just during pit stops.

In June, INDYCAR announced that Dallara Automobili would manufacture the universal kit that will be fitted to the Dallara IR12 chassis for the 2018 season. The new kit already has been tested on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famed 2.5-mile oval, at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and the 3.74-mile Sebring International Raceway in Florida during a street-course simulation.

Four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports completed a similar one-day test Oct. 23 in their Honda-powered cars on behalf of the manufacturer. The series will return to TMS for “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” on Saturday, June 9, 2018 for the re-badged Texas INDY 600 with its lower/sleeker/sexier car.

”It feels different. I wouldn’t say it feels drastically different,” said Newgarden, who said his Penske Chevy will carry the No. 1 in 2018 after winning the title with the No. 2. “I feel this type of oval will be less of a change than some of the other tracks with the aero configurations. There’s small differences just running by ourselves. We’re working through different aero sweeps, understanding what it does with where we were last year and what it’s going to do with where we’re probably going as a series going into next year as far as downforce levels and gather data.

“I really think street courses are going to be a big difference next year _probably THE biggest difference for the aero kit from a feel standpoint and road-courses will be thrown in there.  Running by ourselves, the car seems to be a little more consistent feeling _ you feel more confident. When it’s doing something it continues to do it in the middle of the corner, which is a good thing. But other than that, I haven’t noticed a ton of big differences yet.”

While six ovals are listed on the 17-event 2018 schedule, TMS is the only intermediate, or 1.5-mile, layout remaining. Still, the Chevrolet test will add to INDYCAR’s data base for Phoenix Raceway, IMS, Iowa Speedway in Newton, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.

Weather conditions in June easily can be 30-degrees higher than Wednesday’s sunny-but-cool 60-degree ambient temps. In addition, TMS recently completed its first full season of NASCAR and INDYCAR racing on its repaved and re-configured layout.

The universal chassis is designed to produce less downforce and less grip in a bid to make the cars more difficult to drive and reduce the instances of “pack racing” that still continue to plague open-wheel events at TMS.

“Yeah, there’s less grip,” Newgarden said. “The tough thing is the track still has a ton of grip, it’s not that old. Trying to figure out how to make the cars more difficult to drive, how to make the tire degrade more _  I think that will still be a challenge here just because of the surface. It’s smooth, it’s got tons of grip and I think that will be similar next year. But we will get the cars in a more difficult spot. By ourselves, they won’t feel drastically different but in packs they will feel quite a bit different and we’ll try to spread things out a little bit from what we had last year.

“All of us drivers, we would prefer to have the most difficult car possible so that we can make a better job with the setup, I can do a better job driving the car than the guy next to me _ that would be preferred from us and I think we’ll get there. On a day like today it’s really cool out, the track’s really cool _ it’s difficult to make a car super-difficult.”

Carpenter, 36, driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, co-owns Ed Carpenter Racing with Tony George and Stuart Reed. The Indy native is the only owner/driver competing in the series. Carpenter also is a two-time Indy 500 pole-sitter.

“We’re doing some work for INDYCAR to try to learn as much as we can about what we think will be a good downforce level to come back with,” Carpenter said. “We’re expanding on what they (Honda teams) did for INDYCAR. We have the ability to work on some things for ourselves and we’re doing ‘other things’ for Chevrolet.”

Aesthetically, the chassis design resembles the cars of the late 1980s to mid-1990s run during the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) era of open-wheel racing. The engine cover has a lower profile, the side pod profile is smaller/swoopier and the boxy rear pods are gone, leaving the wide rear tires exposed. The look of the new chassis, quite fittingly, drew “universal” praise from the Chevy participants.

“I think it looks great,” said Carpenter, an oval-track specialist who won at TMS in 2014. “I like the fact that it’s a little sleeker and faster-looking again. Not to say I didn’t like the way the previous car looked, but the biggest thing for me is I like the rear bumper _ pods are gone. Personally, I think being able to see the rear tires from behind these cars is one of the best angles.”

Pigot, who has replaced JR Hildebrand as Carpenter’s teammate, said the design is cleaner than the previous car. “It looks more racy, in my opinion _ not so many things kind of hanging off it, all these winglets,” Pigot said. “Maybe a little bit simpler, as well, for people to relate to rather than last year. It seemed like some places specifically there was a little overkill with all these bits-and-pieces on it.”

Newgarden noted the new chassis’ lowered/pushed forward side pods are key differences the drivers wanted incorporated into the design.

“There is more crush structure in the way of the driver with the side pods coming forward, but it looks more like an open-wheel car,” Newgarden said. “The shaping of the side pod looks like a proper open-wheel car. The engine coming lower, having a blow-through roll hoop signifying that’s a turbocharged car. Those little things I think make it look really, really good.”

Meanwhile, Carpenter has tapped Pigot to drive the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet after two seasons of road/street-course duty in his No. 20 entry. The 24-year-old Orlando, Fla., native made 11 road/street starts for ECR in 2016 and earned three top-10 finishes. He also ran the 2017 Indy 500 for Juncos Racing. From 2011-15, Pigot became the winningest driver in the Mazda Road to Indy, earning four championships and 24 victories in USF 2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights.

“I’m excited to go oval racing again,” Pigot said. “It’s been a while since I’ve consistently driven on ovals. I think it’ll only help that I’ll be in the car throughout the whole season rather than here and there.

“It’s something I’ve never really been a part of before, developing somewhat of a new car with the team. On the road-course side of things, it’s been all my feedback. Hopefully, it’s a good thing and not a bad thing when we get to the first race. It’s a cool experience to step-up into a full-season role and also step- up in a development way as well.

“It’s nice to be here on the ovals and have Ed driving the car a lot. He’s got a ton of experience, someone I can ask questions to and relate to a lot more than when we’ve been doing road-course testing so far.”

Carpenter is eager to exploit the clean-sheet-of-paper theory the new chassis brings to the series and teams with varied budgets.

“There was so much negativity toward the old car,” Carpenter said. “I’m the type of guy that’s not going to over-sell anything. That’s probably my biggest worry _ that we’re over-selling this car from what it’s going to do to the racing to how much money it’s going to save the owners. Like, it’s been expensive as long as I’ve been doing this since 2012; you never reduce the budgets by that much. I’m optimistic but it’s too early to honestly say because there’s only four of us that even has the parts at this point.

“Any time you’re changing over from one car to another, it’s going to cost you money. The kit pieces are inexpensive, but we’re also updating the whole electronics and data systems on every single car we have. So this year is going to be more expensive than last year.”

Ironically, Newgarden is a graduate of ECR, having won his first three series races for Carpenter’s team after joining the organization in 2015 from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Newgarden signed with Penske after finishing a then-career-best fourth in 2016 _ a season that included a victory at Iowa Speedway shortly after breaking his collarbone in a grinding crash on the TMS frontstretch.

“I knew he was going to be a champion some day, so that’s why we tried so hard to keep him,” Carpenter said. “Josef and I _ we’re good friends. Obviously, I’m very happy for him. You’re very happy for him, you’re envious of him, you wish we could have done it together because I know that we could of, but mostly happy for him. I know how hard he worked for that. … Happy for him, proud of him and jealous of him _ all of the above.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 17 2017
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