IndyCar

With Circuit of the America’s announcement, IndyCar’s Mark Miles keeps hitting it out of the park

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If we didn’t know better, one might guess that Mark Miles is in the baseball business, rather than IndyCar racing.

Over the last six months, the CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has been on a hot streak, hitting one home run after another.

First was the signing in March of NBC Sports Group to televise all IndyCar races for the next three seasons (2019-2021), including most notably, the Indianapolis 500.

Eight of the 2019 season’s races will be televised live over the air on NBC, while the other nine will be carried live on NBCSN.

Plus there’s an exciting additional component with NBC Sports Gold that will give race fans additional content they haven’t been able to get before.

Miles hit another home run in mid-July when it was announced that IndyCar would return to the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway for at least the next three seasons, starting with 2019.

We saw another bases-clearing round-tripper over the weekend with the near-sellout crowd as IndyCar returned to Portland International Raceway for the first time since 2007

Tuesday morning, Miles swung and connected again, putting another one over the fence, announcing that Circuit of the Americas will be added to the 2019 IndyCar schedule.

“I tell you, the effort that Mark and all of his staff put in to putting a great product together, giving the fans a great show, wanting the teams to have a great experience, is really impressive,” said COTA founder and chairman Bobby Epstein. “They really listen to the fans and drivers and sponsors, and they make I think perhaps an under-appreciated, under-recognized effort to put together and deliver a season of exciting racing and great venue experiences. They really wanted this to happen, and they really put together a great product.”

But wait, there may be another home run on the horizon, and this could potentially be a grand slam, arguably the biggest news to hit the IndyCar circuit since, well, since the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Only this time, it would be for keeps, rather than a one-off.

That’s right, if Fernando Alonso comes to race in IndyCar – he is testing Wednesday at Barber Motorsports Park as a potential prelude to running full-time in IndyCar next season – Miles and the rest of the sport will absolutely hit it out of the park if they can lure the 2-time Formula One champ.

While NASCAR and Formula One continue to struggle, everything has been on the upswing in IndyCar, with Miles arguably the biggest force driving things.

During a Tuesday afternoon media teleconference, Miles readily admitted that Alonso would help take IndyCar to the next level on a global stage, not just increasing series popularity here in the U.S.

“We sure hope it happens,” Miles said of Alonso. “We’re trying to be helpful to that. If it happens, I think it will be another affirming step for IndyCar in its trajectory and growth. We’re hearing that right now in terms of additional interested parties, prospective international broadcasters. It might be bigger news than it might be in the States, his joining IndyCar.”

Who can forget the Fernando-mania during the month of May last year when Alonso made headlines everywhere from Indy to China to Russia to Brazil to his native Spain.

Never before had IndyCar been talked about so much on an international scale, picking up countless new fans across the Atlantic and Pacific ponds thanks to Alonso’s appearance in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

And if Alonso indeed comes to IndyCar next season – which is increasingly looking like it may happen – the circuit could give F1 a serious run for its money in terms of worldwide popularity and media attention.

Also during Tuesday’s teleconference, Miles also suggested that while he feels IndyCar is at the right balance in terms of number of races remaining the same for 2019 – 17, just like this season – he would also welcome adding perhaps one or two international races to the schedule in the future.

That would include potential venues such as Mexico, and maybe South America, where the weather and the racing could both be potentially hot in the month of February.

“You know our philosophy: we’re not looking to grow the number (17 races) at this point,” Miles said. As our economics improve that would be great, but for now I think this is about the right (number of races), we think it’s about the right length.

“Although we’re still of a view that if we could find one or two really strong international races that add value for the series and the competitors in February, that’s something we would look at. That would be an exception to the idea that we’re big enough as we’re sized right now. That would give us a reason to look at growing the number of events.

“Generally we don’t want to go too long in September. We’d like to start earlier in February if it was out of the U.S. I want to see more people in seats and more impact in the markets where we race. I think that’s generally happening and we’ll continue to look for ways to improve on that.”

And let’s not forget about Australia.

It would be awesome to see Indy cars once again return to the great down under, particularly when you have an Aussie like Will Power, who won this year’s Indianapolis 500, and also Scott Dixon, going for his fifth IndyCar championship next weekend, from nearby New Zealand.

Yes, these are good and exciting times for IndyCar, with the likely promise that they will only to continue to get better and more exciting as time moves forward.

But it makes you wonder, given all the home runs Mark Miles has hit of late, and if he gets Alonso to join the series next season, what does Miles do for an encore?

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see what Miles has up his sleeve for the next potential homer he and IndyCar are going to hit.

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Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.