Newgarden’s Long Beach career spans ‘Incognito’ to Penske arrival

He was 'Incognito' in 2012; now, Josef Newgarden is at Long Beach as a Team Penske driver. Photo: IndyCar
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In 2012, things were different in the world of the Verizon IndyCar Series when the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach date arrived on the calendar.

Among other notable differences, the series title sponsor was IZOD, not Verizon. Randy Bernard was still at the helm of the series. NBCSN had only just changed to the NBC Sports Network after being Versus prior to that. The Dallara DW12 chassis had only just premiered. Chevrolet and Lotus had entered in as engine manufacturers. Dario Franchitti was in search of his fourth consecutive series title. Rubens Barrichello had arrived from Formula 1, and the series had two full-time female drivers in Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge.

And a then-unheralded 21-year-old rookie out of Hendersonville, Tenn. named Josef Newgarden – the Indy Lights champion whose name was known only to the select few diehard super fans or insiders at the time – was about to make his first stamp on the series. This was five years before the realization he might become a Team Penske driver ever occurred.

A regulation at the time meant that if a car changed engines before the race, it would incur a 10-spot grid penalty. The Chevrolet teams all swapped their engines before the race, creating a grid that was vastly different from the qualifying order.

What that meant was Franchitti, who’d qualified fourth and Newgarden, who’d qualified seventh, would leap frog onto the front row for Sunday’s race.

Franchitti, 38 at the time and Newgarden, 17 years his junior at 21, represented the polar opposites of the birth spectrum on the grid or close. Franchitti was – and still is – one of IndyCar’s biggest stars and a driver that is among the best of his generation. Newgarden has the potential to be there with time, but again, at that time, almost no one knew who he was.

It made for a perfect opportunity to premiere an off-the-wall video called “Newgarden Incognito,” where Newgarden went undercover to talk to fans to ask them who their favorite driver was and if they’d ever heard of a driver named Josef Newgarden.

It was perhaps no surprise that Franchitti got the plaudits as the most commonly mentioned favorite driver while Newgarden received a lot of quizzical looks.

“It’s crazy looking back now and how things have changed,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “The incognito stuff was fun because no one knew who I was… I might be able to get away with it again, now. A lot of folks come to Long Beach race. They’re here to look at race cars. If I wanted, I could probably do another video to rehash it! Now though, being in a Penske car, and having a sixth chance to run at Long Beach, is incredible.”

And then the green flag dropped on Sunday, and Newgarden made one of the ballsier moves in recent memory on a driver who is a historian of the sport and would know how to play the move correctly.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda leads Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda at the start of the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Newgarden attempted a pass for the lead around the outside of Franchitti on the run to Turn 1. Going into the corner though, Franchitti was cagey enough to have left enough room to tempt Newgarden – the rookie in only his third start – to go for it.

Newgarden promptly got in the marbles and crashed into the wall. He’d finish 26th and last; Franchitti eventually retired with a gearbox failure and ended 15th.

But five years on, as Newgarden is now the widely considered face of IndyCar’s next generation and one of its key drivers in its season-long ‘NEXT’ marketing campaign, the daring attempt performed that day still lives on as a key moment in his career.

“With Dario, I learned that as a rookie, Dario wouldn’t be happy about someone doing that type of move,” Newgarden said. “It was a mistake in how I analyzed it. But that was OK. I have no regrets on doing that move. It was probably the wrong thing.”

So, chalk Long Beach 2012 up as the weekend where Newgarden properly “arrived” on the series, via his first quirky video and his first serious passing attempt of note.

Two years later though, a more refined Newgarden was in the midst of his best weekend yet in the series, in his third year of his rookie contract with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 13: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda during warm up for the Verizon IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13, 2014 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He’d qualified fourth and was in the lead battle with Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. Once Newgarden emerged from the pits in front on his last scheduled stop, his potential first win was right there for the taking.

Yet Hunter-Reay saw an opening at a spot on the 1.968-mile street course where passes rarely occur successfully, Turn 4, and promptly speared Newgarden which took them both – and innocent bystander Hinchcliffe – all out of the race. These three drivers had started in the top four; none would see the checkered flag.

“The Hunter-Reay deal was more unfortunate for everyone involved,” Newgarden reflected. “It’s hard to put the blame anywhere. It’s hard racing at the wrong point of the track. It ended up being a bad break. We’ve been close here.”

Those two DNFs stand out more in Newgarden’s Long Beach career more than his other nondescript results of seventh, 10th and 13th.

For a driver who’s been good, if not great on street courses thus far in his career, coming to Long Beach with Team Penske presents him his best chance yet at being the story line here for a different reason.

The magnitude of this race stands out and it’s one Newgarden would like to have a better weekend at in his No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Once you go for the first time, you gain an appreciation for the atmosphere around Long Beach. Indy we all rave about, but it’s something you have to go and see here,” he explained. “It’s such a spectacle. For street course racing, you get that atmosphere in a different way. It’s kind of rare. The atmosphere draws me in. It’s my favorite street course we go to from a layout standpoint. It has a lot of high-speed corners for street courses.

“It’s been a tough place for me! We’ve always found speed around Long Beach. I know we’ll have that. So this year, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

And winning here for Penske, or getting a result higher than seventh, will help to avoid the “Incognito” memories from coming back once more.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.