For Josef Newgarden, year three is chance to enter IndyCar’s elite

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If history is any indication, Josef Newgarden has the prodigious talent to enter an elite group of drivers in his third year of the IndyCar Series.

Current drivers that won their first race in their third season of competition, in the CART, Champ Car, IRL or IndyCar formats include: Helio Castroneves (CART, 2000), Will Power (Champ Car, 2007), Ryan Briscoe (IndyCar, 2008), James Hinchcliffe (IndyCar, 2013), Charlie Kimball (IndyCar, 2013) and Simon Pagenaud (IndyCar, 2013).

Others, such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson, among others, have won earlier.

But their circumstances are different to the ones Newgarden faces, as the 23-year-old Nashville native prepares for his “junior year” in IndyCar.

Newgarden has had to learn and develop without the aid of a full-time teammate at the fledgling but growing Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing organization.

As a young driver, the expertise offered by a veteran could be beneficial, but as Newgarden explained, not having one can make you stronger.

“It would be optimal to have a teammate with more resources,” he admitted in an interview with MotorSportsTalk last week. “But working with what you have, and making the most of it can be very rewarding in its own right. Doing well as a single-car team builds confidence for all of us.”

As a result, he’s going through his first round of engine development work this offseason. Honda shifts from a single turbo to a twin-turbo engine specification, which essentially changes how the power is delivered.

While Newgarden said the team has had “really good success” figuring out the new challenge, the challenge that has presented itself from a personnel standpoint has been twofold.

The team lost engineer Nathan O’Rourke to Andretti Autosport, with Jeremy Milless now filling that role. Another team member, Mike O’Gara, has also departed the organization to run Chip Ganassi’s sports car team in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

“It’s been an adjustment period; a real tough offseason, with a lot of shuffling. But I think we’ve responded the best we can,” Newgarden said. “We have most of our guys still the same. This team never quits, and honestly I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Newgarden’s two seasons have featured some brief highs, but more lows in total. And that’s not for anything that’s been done wrong, but more down to either poor luck or poor pace.

Case in point: Newgarden was often quick in 2012, but he rarely had any results to show for it (not a single top-10 finish; ended 23rd in points) and dealt with frequent mechanical maladies. He also missed the Baltimore race after breaking his finger in a collision with Bourdais at Sonoma.

In 2013, the results improved (four top-five, seven top-10 finishes, jumped to 14th in points) but the qualifying fell off. Newgarden’s qualifying average of 17.5 was better than only three other full-season drivers: Ed Carpenter, Graham Rahal and Sebastian Saavedra.

“For year three, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on being quicker,” he said. “We did better at finishing races, and putting results together. But we lacked outright performance and speed. We’re trying to understand and gain consistency, and also get more ultimate speed out of it. That’s where we will make more gains.”

Are wins – as mentioned in the lede – the ultimate goal? Not as much as translating that hoped-for consistency into a top-10 points finish, which is a lofty goal considering the mighty Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams will field half (11 of 22) of the projected full-season entries.

“A realistic goal for us is top-10 in the championship, and to be a top-10 car at the end of the year,” Newgarden said. “Whether wins come or not is neither here or there. We have to be more consistent, and put results together. I think we’re capable.”

Newgarden starred on street courses in particular in 2013. He nearly won at Brazil but eventually faded to fifth, while at Baltimore, Newgarden attacked the infamous Pratt St. chicane like no other en route to second, an elusive but popular maiden podium finish (and one that featured a kitten named Simba, because Internet).

But he doesn’t want to be known as a one-trick pony, especially given that those two circuits are absent from the 2014 IndyCar schedule.

“I really think I can make it work on other courses,” he said. “Baltimore and Brazil people thought were my two best tracks. But I’m excited for St. Pete, Long Beach and Barber to kick off the year; we’ve worked harder on the package. I think we’ll have good results.”

What Newgarden is always good at – beyond his on-track development – is his candor, relationship with the media and occasionally self-deprecating sense of humor.

He’s grown his hair out this winter, and admits his love for Chipotle “still stands as strong as ever” despite “inroads made from Moe’s.”

But back to business, Newgarden is in a contract year, with 2014 marking the third of his initial three-year contract with SFHR. He could potentially play himself into a bigger seat for 2015; for now at least, he doesn’t want that to distract from the focus of continued improvement.

“It’s been a challenging road; it’s been tough learning the ropes,” he admitted. “But I’m very excited about year three. There’s so much I’ve learned in two years, being in the mix.

“What I need to do is apply the learning the last two years, and make that big step forward. We’ve built this team from essentially the ground up, improved and improved with each race, and I have with them. Hopefully that’s the recipe. There’s not pressure for year three, but more excitement from more experience.”

For IndyCar’s sake, as Newgarden is one of only two Americans 25 or younger (Graham Rahal is the other, at 25), taking that next step to enter potential superstar status will be a benefit to all of driver, team and series.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”