When Robert Wickens went to Road America last year at the invitation of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – he subbed in opening practice for then SPM driver Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America after the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to via issues – it was like taking a few licks off an ice cream cone.
Once he got a taste for IndyCar, it wasn’t long – just a few weeks later, actually – before Wickens decided he wanted the full-course meal.
That’s why he’s with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a rookie this season.
That’s also why the Toronto, Ontario native is looked forward so much to returning to the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Now, instead of being an observer, the 29-year-old Wickens is a full-time IndyCar participant in the No. 6 SPM Lucas Oil Honda. And what better place to earn his first career IndyCar victory than in Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix.
“This is my one-year anniversary of an IndyCar press conference,” Wickens said during Friday’s at-track media availability. “That’s kind of cool. Good timing for a coffee.
“It’s cool. I mean, to do it at a track like Road America is even more special. I mean, it’s such a cool place, so much history. As a driver, I think it’s a favorite for everybody.
“A big reason why I agreed to help out the team last year was because it was at Road America, just because it’s such a cool track to drive. Driving an IndyCar on such a good track, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“Now I’m a full-time guy. Hopefully we can get some good results this weekend.”
Long-time friend James Hinchcliffe kept touting Wickens’ talent and ability to SPM for the last couple of years. Finally, both the team and Wickens agreed to a marriage for 2018 and beyond.
“I had obviously a huge interest in Rob coming to the team,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was a huge advocate for it very early on. I was one of the few guys — myself and Piers Phillips were the ones that followed Robby’s career all through Europe, knew what he was capable of. We were the ones that put our foot down and said, ‘This is the guy we have to take a look at.’
“Once his name was on everybody else’s radar within the team, I tried to sit back. What I didn’t want to happen is I didn’t want people to think I was trying to get my buddy in the seat. I laid out all the facts.
“If you looked at everything on paper, the facts were this is the best available guy in the world for this car in the world. I wanted them to figure it on out on own rather than just hammer it in.”
While Wickens was a stranger to the IndyCar series, he was not a stranger to many of its current drivers.
“There’s so many people (currently in IndyCar that) I grew up racing against,” Wickens said. “This guy (pointing toward Hinchcliffe, who was on the stage with him) is one of them.
“It’s always nice to see when the kind of ladder system works. Kids that you grew up racing against, you end up being professionals with. Some are good. Some are bad. You have this childhood rivalry that you can’t shake. Luckily that wasn’t me, but I know other drivers that have been through that.
“But honestly, it’s just fun. I mean, I’m racing with a smile on my face, which not every person can wake up in the morning, be really happy to go to work, regardless of the environment.
“I’m just looking forward to this weekend. Hopefully we can rebound well after Texas (crashed, finished 19th) and go from there.”
Road America is also a special place for Hinchcliffe, but for a different reason. It’s there that he climbed back into an IndyCar (for a test session) several months after his near-fatal crash at Indianapolis while practicing for the Indy 500 in 2015.
“This place has always been one of my favorites,” Hinchcliffe said. “I got my first open-wheel race win here back in Formula BMW, all the way up to getting back into an IndyCar for the first time after the accident.
“I was gutted when I got to IndyCar and we didn’t race at Road America, so I was very excited when they finally announced when we were coming back. As Robbie said, this is a lot of drivers’ favorite road course in the country. It’s always nice to get to rip an IndyCar around this place.”
Hinchcliffe’s return to Road America is once again looking for a different type of comeback.
Having failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 this year, Hinchcliffe remains 11th in the IndyCar point standings. While he struggled during both races at Belle Isle (finished 11th and 16th), he bounced back with a strong fourth-place showing two weeks ago at Texas.
“The car has been solid the last few weekends,” Hinchcliffe said. “Hopefully we can bring home some more good points.”
Road America will mark the fourth race for Hinchcliffe of working with engineer Will Anderson, who replaced Leena Gade, who lasted just five races with the team before parting ways with SPM.
“Coming into the season, I had exactly zero people on my stand from 2017, or any other year of my career,” Hinchcliffe said. “Having worked with Will for a bunch of years as assistant race engineer, it’s nice to have that familiar face on the stand.
“We already speak the same language, know how each other works. It’s made that transition a little bit easier. It’s never ideal to do that mid-season.
“I think he slipped into the role very nicely. I think him and I have been working pretty well together. It’s been productive so far.”
Wickens agreed, adding that his route to IndyCar was indeed somewhat circuitous more so than he ever really anticipated.
“That was the big thing,” Wickens said. “Obviously as a kid I grew up watching IndyCars and loved racing Indy cars. My career went to Europe at a pretty young age pursuing Formula 1, then we got approached by Mercedes to race in the DTM in German touring cars.
“I was never always hoping for an IndyCar opportunity. I was honestly completely content where I was. But then situations changed and I had to look for some new avenues to go racing.
“IndyCar was my top prospect. It’s what I probably wanted to do the most this season, given the new aero kits, given like IndyCar is always on the rise, other championships are starting to struggle a bit.
“I think the timing was right. Happy to be a part of it. Even more I’m happy that the results are coming in the first year.”
Ironically, while Road America last year whetted Wickens’ appetite for IndyCar, it wasn’t until the IndyCar race on his home turf of downtown Toronto about three weeks later that he really started considering the American open-wheel series as a viable option for the next step of his racing career.
“At this time last year, IndyCar wasn’t really on my horizon,” Wickens said. “It was more just to tick off a bucket list.
“Around the Toronto weekend is when I kind of first thought about, like, talking to teams, kind of seeing what I could do.”
And now he hopes to show what he can do Sunday with a strong run.
“The plan is to start at the front, race at the front, finish at the front, right?” Wickens said. “I don’t think not having race experience on this track (is a detriment). If I follow my game plan, I won’t really have to pass anyone.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Josef Newgarden was taught by his father that he could win the Indy 500, and he learned through his wife that it would be OK to always lose it.
After finally winning the 107th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the typically unflappable two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion got choked up when discussing the importance of Joey Newgarden, who instilled “internal belief,” and Ashley Newgarden, who “helps make my world go round and sees the heartbreak more than anyone else.”
Monday morning, while Josef Newgarden made the rounds of photo shoots and media obligations at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, beaming family members lingered among incessant laughter on the Yard of Bricks – savoring the moment and recounting their supportive roles through a journey that took 12 tries (Newgarden tied the record for most Indianapolis 500 starts before his first victory).
For Joey Newgarden, it was turning a scrawny kid (“when Josef was 11, he was 4 foot 11, 67 pounds”) into the superstar with six-pack abs who proved a worthy main character in the first season of IndyCar’s “100 Days to Indy” docuseries.
For Ashley, there were the anguished and helpless days after many Brickyard disappointments that thrust her into the role of an indefatigable sports psychologist.
“In a lot of ways, it’s terribly difficult for someone like Ashley,” Newgarden told NBC Sports during a reflective interview late Monday morning in an antiseptic glass-paneled office on the fourth floor of the IMS media center. “She carries the burden more than anybody, and people don’t know that and see that. I’m not easy to be around when my heart’s broken.
“And when this place breaks your heart, it’s tough to leave here every year. I’m going to cry thinking about it. It’s really, really hard. And she just … endures it is probably the one way to put it. She has endured the pain. And I think it’s almost a harder pain than the pain I feel because she’s not asking for it, but she’s having to live it.
“And there’s more than just that. You think about the genuinely impossible odds that are so against you to make it to this level, and a lot of it is down to my mom and dad, and the way they literally laid everything on the line to make this happen.
“We don’t come from just some blank check group. I came from a great upbringing. We had great opportunity, but you really have to put everything on the line if you’re going to make this type of career work, and they did that. So to come against all these odds, and for all of us to be there together and win this race.
“It’s full circle.”
Josef Newgarden was ready to quit motorsports after his first full-bodied car race – a Southern Regional Skip Barber event in 2006 at Sebring International Raceway.
After a hugely successful career in go-karting, this was his chance to take a critical next step toward the major leagues, and it was happening on one of the most daunting, physically punishing road courses in the United States.
So on the first lap, Newgarden fully committed to taking the Turn 17 corner, pancaking his car into the wall with embarrassing overexuberance.
“It was basically a typical me move,” he said sheepishly. “I always overcook high-speed stuff. I love it. That’s what my essence is. I love a high-speed track. I will send it bigger than anybody. That was one of the days I oversent it into Turn 17 and overcooked it straight into the wall.”
There was another race the next day, but at dinner that night, Newgarden was having second thoughts.
“I was saying I don’t know if I want to do this,” he said. “I don’t know that I can do this. There definitely was doubt in a lot of ways, and I’m saying this stuff, and my dad made me run the race the next day when I didn’t want to run the race. That’s how much I was taken aback by the whole thing. He made me run the race. And most people would not ever guess that story that my dad is trying to help make me run the race the next day because I don’t want to do it, and because I feel like I can’t do it.”
It’s unfathomable to consider because Newgarden, 32, comes off as one of the most supremely confident drivers in IndyCar through a persona of unflagging optimism. Whether starting 17th (as he did in the 107th Indy 500) or first, he never betrays an iota of doubt that he can win every race.
Which, under the watchful eye of his father, is exactly what he did in the second Skip Barber race at Sebring.
It was “a big turning point” on the championship mettle required for big-time auto racing.
“There was a light bulb that switched for me for sure that I was like you have to dig deep,” Newgarden said. “It was one of those moments of do you want to do this or not? And I think you either change in that moment to fully get on board or not. Because you can’t be in the middle. You won’t run for Roger Penske in the biggest race in the world if you are.
“It’s weird to go back and talk about it because I know it’s become second nature to me. There’s so much pressure, there’s so much obligation of be you, be awesome. Talk to our sponsors. Be their representative. Get in the car, do a great job. The amount of commitment that people put on you. You just can’t crack.
“It must have been in there, and Joey just brought it out of me.”
Josef Newgarden describes his dad as “the ultimate believer” who was always there as his son barnstormed around the Midwest on dozens of go-kart trips from their home outside Nashville, Tennessee.
“He’s just a very distinct human being,” Josef said of Joey. “But he has an amazing talent for optimism, and that can’t be understated how he’s given that to me. I can be a very realistic and pragmatic person.
“Those don’t always line up, having extreme optimism and trying to be realistic about something and see all scenarios. I think I’m able to be both now. I try to see things truly for what they are, and I don’t overreach. But I also have ultimate belief that anything can happen and anything is possible. My dad embodied that from the very beginning.”
Though Joey refers to it as “putting in the work,” Josef Newgarden said there were immense sacrifices made by him and his mother, Tina, so their son could pursue the dream of becoming a professional race car driver with a single-minded focus.
“It was, ‘We don’t have enough money? We’ll get the money,’ ” he said. “We will figure it out. And I didn’t have to carry any of that burden when I was young. If we go into debt, who cares? We’ll figure it out. Are we out of opportunities? Doesn’t matter. We’ll figure something out and keep going.”
His father recalls it all as being my design of trying to mold a young teenager “who never had belief in himself” while competing in baseball, basketball and go-karts against bigger competition.
Joey Newgarden, who grew up sweeping floors for 75 cents an hour in Miami while working for his father in the business of photography chemicals, set to establish that the simple principles of hard work and a positive attitude can take someone to whatever station in life they desire.
“Maybe I was just trying to trick him,” Joey Newgarden, wearing an Indy 500 champion’s hat and dark sunglasses, told a few reporters Monday morning at IMS. “I was scrawny like that when I was a kid, too, and I didn’t really have a male role model doing that with me, so I had to try to come up with a plan. We’ve got two daughters and one son, and he was the youngest. And it was, ‘How are we going to do it and convince him that he can be No. 1?’ It’s tough competition out there.”
Though there was a physical aspect (Newgarden became a fitness fanatic in his later teens), much of dad’s grooming was on the attitude of his son, who has retained the competitive fire and grace as a world-class driver but shed being a poor loser.
“He was the biggest baby about racing cars,” Joey recalled with a laugh. “He wanted to win every race and lead every lap literally from the very beginning. And when he’d get out of the car, he was Tony Stewart Jr. He wanted to win every single time.
“I always told him you’ve got to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. Because if you don’t know how to lose, you don’t know what winning really means.”
Josef Newgarden said the crash in Sebring went a long way toward establishing his mental toughness.
“You either are hardened by that, and you’re steel,” he said. “Or you’re weak, and you’re not going to make it at this level. It’s just what it takes.
“From that point on, it was never again am I going to lack that type of belief. But Joey is central to the belief system. He should have full credit for that. It sounds simple, but not everybody can truly put their all into something and make it happen at all costs. He gave that to me.”
If his parents provided the immutable faith in pursuing a goal that seemed impossible, his wife of four years (and romantic partner of nearly a decade) gave him the gift of letting go of it.
Ashley Newgarden annually watched her husband agonizingly wrestle with the toll of coming up short in the Indy 500 (which Team Penske now has won a record 19 times).
“Every year, you see someone else get that, and you want it so desperately for yourself and you can picture it for yourself, too,” she said. “So with Josef, the heartbreak just comes from just the thought of, ‘Maybe I’ll never get this opportunity.’ And that’s the worst thing. Because you only get one chance a year, and you only have a certain amount of years you can do this and be competitive at it.
“And he knows that it’s now or never. Every year we left, it was just more hard and more hard and sadder and sadder and sadder.”
There was little she could do to console him, too.
“It’s the toughest part because she wants nothing more than to help, and she can’t help me,” Josef said. “That’s why I say she’s had to endure the pain because in some relationships that person is able to help the individual that needs it. And that doesn’t work for me. So she can’t help.”
Said Ashley: “There’s nothing you can say. Just give him your support. You can say, ‘That one hurt, it’s yours next year.’ But he’s such a realist, and he doesn’t need the coaching like that from me. You just have to be supportive, and my biggest focus was always how do we get him in a mentally stronger place before the next race and not let this bleed over, (and) he goes into the next race angry.
“It was always the focus of how do we somehow let this go and just put it on the back burner and kind of forget about it. This race is done. After the month, just forget about it until next year. Go to Detroit and have a good season.”
Eventually, Ashley helped Josef with landing in a place where he could divorce himself from some of the pain in the Indy misses. After his second IndyCar championship, Josef struck a new tone publicly about refusing to let the Brickyard define him.
“I think you have to get to that point, because if not, this will just eat you alive,” Ashley said. “And you’ll just not feel you’ve accomplished enough, even though it’s harder to win a championship. This is a very hard race to win, of course. But it’s harder to put together seasons and to be an IndyCar Series champion, but yet this race is more elusive, and you want this more almost.
“I think recently over the last couple of years, really the last year, he started to focus on ‘I’ve done my job. I’ve done everything that I can. I’ve given them two championships.’ I think he started to focus more on that, and he was going to do everything that he could, and it’s going to be enough, and if he doesn’t win the 500, that does not take away from his career. Because I think people think it does. And I think he just kind of let go of it.”
Newgarden described the new outlook as conceding he never might win the Brickyard despite the omnipresent belief that he could.
“I kind of grieved it in a way,” he said. “It’s a weird way to put it, but I’m going to grieve the Indy 500 and it just doesn’t matter if I don’t ever win it. I truly do not subscribe to this thesis that you have to win this race to have a complete career. Of course, I would love to win the race, and it is a huge achievement. And it is the most difficult race and the most accomplishing race to win.
“But it shouldn’t define your time in the sport if you’re given that time. So I grieved the possibility of it and said if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m not going to linger on it if it doesn’t work out.”
Ashley, who studied psychology in college, provides an emotionally intelligent yin to her husband’s coolly detached yang.
“She’s a very smart woman and more of an empath than I am, which is a little tough because she can be very emotional, and I’m not emotional at all half the time,” Josef said. “But she’s very intuitive with that type of mentality and trying to understand how to survive things and construct things in your brain or how to reason with things. So she’s definitely been most helpful for me to find balance in life.
“Because without her I would probably be a much darker, more miserable person. I would cut everything off and have no balance in my life without her. She’s really the only one that’s figured out how to give that to me.”
Serving as an unofficial nutritionist for her husband’s elite athlete lifestyle, Ashley has tried to find other ways to “make sure everything in his life is easy. Home, food, everything else is taken care of, and I don’t think it comes from a place of him needing that. But that’s how I show him love in those moments and am supportive.”
On the Sunday morning of the Indy 500, Ashley and Josef Newgarden usually awake to a stress level that never subsides.
It wasn’t there this year.
“It was so weird,” she said. “I’ll be honest, starting 17th, I’m like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if we’re going to get up there’. But yesterday morning, we were so easy. And I don’t know if it was because I just felt so confident within. I think it was just a different change of mind for him and I. It was like if it doesn’t happen today, it’s OK. I think you have to get there mentally because if not, this will emotionally kill you.”
Joey Newgarden also has noticed an off-track calmness surrounding his family.
When Ashley gave birth to their first child, a son named Kota, in April 2022, Josef Newgarden joined his siblings in each having children within a 20-month span after the trio had gotten married within three years of each other.
His two sisters (the oldest works in pharmaceutical sales at a California company; the other is a registered nurse at a cancer research facility in Seattle) “are doing really well for themselves” to the delight of their parents.