Is Canada one of the best grassroots open-wheel racing destinations anywhere?
Josef Newgarden, who will be in town later this week to race in next Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto, thinks so.
That’s right: the 27-year-old reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion, who is as American as apple pie hailing from Henderson, Tenn., happily heaps praise on the single-seat racing culture north of the border.
He dipped his toe into it in 2008, when he spent a weekend under the canopy of long-time Formula 1600 team owner Brian Graham at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (née Mosport). Newgarden and another successful young American racer, Conor Daly, were that year’s recipients of the Team USA Scholarship and raced with Graham to warm up for their ultimate prize, the chance to compete in the Formula Ford Festival in the United Kingdom.
“That event that I did up there, it was tons of fun,” Newgarden told the Toronto Star in a recent interview. “Canada has always, I think, provided some of the best open-wheel racing you can get.
“Look at Mosport, which is such a great facility, an awesome old-school racetrack, and then Toronto (Exhibition Place circuit) where I’ve been able to run for the last five or six years (and winning the 2015 and 2017 Honda Indys).
“To me, it’s some of the purest open-wheel racing that you can get in Canada.”
The Team USA Scholarship’s investment was evidently worthwhile. Newgarden won the festival’s Kent class that year, making him the first and still the only American driver to win any class at the internationally esteemed event.
From there, it didn’t take long for his career to launch.
After spending a couple of years taking a run at a career in Europe, Newgarden returned stateside in 2011 to compete in the Indy Lights championship. He won five races on his way to winning the title in his very first go-around.
That awarded him a scholarship to move up into the IndyCar big-time and launch his rookie campaign with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
After three formative years — fraught with the challenges of a chronically low budget but dotted with breakthrough podiums at Baltimore in 2013 and Iowa in 2014 — Newgarden finally scored his long-anticipated first win in 2015 with CFH Racing, co-owned by American racers Fisher and Ed Carpenter, and then a second victory a few weeks later right here in Toronto.
When he followed that up with another stellar season with Carpenter in 2016, including a win at Iowa, three more podium finishes, and 11 top 10s in total out of 16 races, he got the call every racer hopes to receive: he’d caught the attention of Roger Penske.
Penske is well-known for plucking seriously talented drivers out of lower-budget teams. Toronto’s Paul Tracy is one of the more famous examples.
With Newgarden, his faith paid off quickly. Newgarden scored four wins and nine podiums overall across 17 races to win the overall championship in 2017 in his very first season with Penske Racing.
Newgarden credits his out-of-the-gate success to his team’s ability to rapidly integrate new drivers into its culture.
“They’re kind of a dynasty in a lot of ways,” he says. “They’ve just had so many years with so much success. That makes a tremendous difference when you’re a young driver.
The Canadian Grand Prix has its own, Unique Story
“But trying to acclimate into that type of environment is a whole different deal. I think they’re really good at bringing a person in and integrating them into their team. I just tried to follow their lead. That’s really what I think led to the title.”
Newgarden’s road to a repeat is off to a steady start, though his results have seen a slight loss in momentum since his second win of the year at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in April.
With a pair of victories in Toronto already under his belt, his visit could mark a season turning point. On the other hand, he has a win-or-bust history here: any result that wasn’t an outright win has tended to be disastrous.
“It’s a street course trait,” he says. The Exhibition Place track is one of the four street courses that the IndyCar Series visits, which are built by lining city streets with concrete barriers. “It’s tough being consistent at a place like that. It can breed chaos, which is part of why you love it.
“I think staying on your toes is what’s important at Toronto. The couple of wins I’ve had there, that’s certainly been on capitalizing on an opportunity. I think at a track like that, that’s what you have to do.”
Now that he’s an IndyCar champion at 27, Newgarden has accomplished more before turning 30 than many racers ever do. But he’s not done yet.
He would still like to score a win at the Indianapolis 500 someday — “being able to win a race around that place would be huge” — but he’s got his sights set even higher.
“I think as a racer you get very greedy,” Newgarden says. “You try and get as much as possible. You try to win as many races, as many championships.
“That’s what we have in our sights — just trying to find more success. We take it one race at a time.”
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