Getty Images

New champ Newgarden hails MRTI as IndyCar’s youth begins to rise

Leave a comment

New Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, at 26 years old, is the series’ youngest champion since Scott Dixon in 2003 at 23. He’s also the first under-30 champion since Dixon, then 28, in 2008.

Additionally, Newgarden is the first Mazda Road to Indy champion since the formation of the program in 2010 who has also ascended the ladder all the way to the IndyCar championship.

Newgarden only spent one year in the Mazda Road to Indy in Indy Lights, when the series still had Firestone tires before its program-wide switch to Cooper Tires several years later.

But his one year back in 2011, winning the championship for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, revitalized his career at a time when his European career stalled out after one year in GP3, in 2010. That was his tough European stretch after getting there thanks to winning the Team USA Scholarship in 2008.

Newgarden after his Freedom 100 win. Photo: IndyCar

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” Newgarden said, noting that IndyCar now combines both a solid number of American drivers along with a great variety of international drivers.

“You know, and I think the Mazda Road to Indy has come such a long way, and the farming system seems to be working again.”

Newgarden raced with Carlin in that 2010 GP3 season, a teammate to eventual IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin. Others in that field who’ve now moved to IndyCar this year include that year’s champion, Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth that year on his road to F1 before coming Stateside, and Robert Wickens, who was second that season and had a one-off run with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in practice at Road America. James Jakes and Stefano Coletti also joined IndyCar after being in that year’s GP3 field, but both last raced here in 2015.

At 26, Newgarden has six years and 100 starts in IndyCar under his belt, which is more time than has been afforded to a number of recent MRTI graduates.

Of the next five champions from 2012 to 2016, Tristan Vautier (31 starts), Sage Karam (15), Gabby Chaves (26), Spencer Pigot (22) and Ed Jones (17), have 31 starts or less in IndyCar, and none has driven more than one full-time season although each of the first four have driven in parts of multiple seasons.

The tide may be beginning to shift though with the wave of recent top-five Indy Lights drivers solidifying their more consistent, regular presence in IndyCar.

Pigot was confirmed last week as a full-season driver with Ed Carpenter Racing, his first full-time shot after parts of two years. Chaves and Jones are expected to be back in full-time bows with Harding Racing and Dale Coyne Racing, respectively.

There’s also Zach Veach confirmed at Andretti Autosport in a three-year deal, and new Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirmed for at least three races and working on more.

Rossi never went to the MRTI but at 25 is another of the talented young guns in IndyCar, along with Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz and Max Chilton, who all won in Indy Lights themselves. While Rossi is confirmed in a multi-year deal with Andretti Autosport, these other three are also working to be back.

Additional Indy Lights race winners looking to break through into IndyCar include Jack Harvey, RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham, who’ve all been up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee with three starts or less in either 2016 or 2017.

Since the formation of the MRTI prior to 2010, in Indy Lights, 21 different drivers in the top five in points have graduated or will graduate to IndyCar for at least one start, with potentially more to come if there’s others from 2016 or 2017 who can assemble a program.

And since the introduction of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the training vehicle for IndyCar should be even better – the car is more closely aligned with the IndyCar itself, and rewards drivers who are good under braking.

  • 2010: James Hinchcliffe (second), Martin Plowman (third), Charlie Kimball (fourth), Pippa Mann (fifth)
  • 2011: Josef Newgarden (first), Stefan Wilson (third)
  • 2012: Tristan Vautier (first), Sebastian Saavedra (fourth), Carlos Munoz (fifth)
  • 2013: Sage Karam (first), Gabby Chaves (second), Munoz (third), Jack Hawksworth (fourth)
  • 2014: Chaves (first), Jack Harvey (second), Zach Veach (third), Matthew Brabham (fourth)
  • 2015: Spencer Pigot (first), Harvey (second), Ed Jones (third), RC Enerson (fourth), Max Chilton (fifth)
  • 2016: Jones (first), Kyle Kaiser (third), Veach (fourth)
  • 2017: Kaiser (first), Zachary Claman DeMelo (fifth)

Newgarden explained the importance of building the next generation of stars, as did his team owner, Roger Penske.

“I feel like team owners and people within IndyCar are looking to the youth in America, which is a great thing. I think there’s more guys that are capable that are coming up to help fly the flag in this series,” Newgarden said.

“But as I said, the best thing is we have people from all around the world that are the best at what they do, and we’ve got to continue to have that. We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas because if it’s just Americans running it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly having successful Americans is a big deal, too.

“You know, the youth that is coming up, I do believe you’re going to hopefully see for a long time, and I think there’s a lot of bright spots within the Mazda Road to Indy and some of the guys that are coming over from overseas that are young. So I think there’s a lot of talent in the world that are yet to make their mark in IndyCar Series, and you’re going to see that for years to come. Hopefully that includes me, too, but there’s no telling what the future holds.”

Penske added, “I think if you look at racing today across all of the disciplines, these drivers, these young people are coming up with lots of capabilities. You see it in NASCAR, we see it in our Supercars. There’s no question that because they start early, we’re going to see younger people come to the top, as Josef has.

“I see these young guys coming in with the respect. He’s certainly from a commercial perspective like the other guys have been great for our sponsors, and it was just something we had to say, hey, come on with us, we’re ready to go, and he’ll be a long-term player with us, hopefully like most of the drivers have.”

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500