Josef Newgarden compares Indy 500 to Kentucky Derby

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INDIANAPOLIS – Two of the most traditional, time-honored and revered sporting events in America are hosted by adjoining states in the same month of the year. And both feature horsepower.

The Month of May kicks off with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. This year was the 145thrunning of the famed horse race with a crowd of more than 150,000 watching the fabled event.

May ends with the Memorial Day Speed Classic, the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The May 26 race will be the 103rd edition.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

Churchill Downs and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are just 123 miles apart, down Interstate 65.

Both are national treasures that represent the pride of two great Midwestern states – Indiana and Kentucky.

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden got the “Kentucky Derby Treatment” as a guest of NBC Sports when he attended “Derby Day” with his fiancé, Ashley Welch. The Indy 500 veteran was thrilled at the spectacle of 19 horses in the race for the roses.

On Sunday, May 26, more than 300,000 fans will watch Newgarden and 32 other drivers compete in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” featuring a combined 26,000 horsepower.

By attending the Kentucky Derby, Newgarden said it sparked his interest in horse racing. He won’t be able to watch NBC’s coverage of “The Preakness” on Saturday because he will be participating in qualifications for the Indy 500.

But he will be paying attention to what happens at Pimlico after his qualifications have concluded.

“I am interested but will be much more focused on Indy 500 qualifying, but I’ll definitely check out what happens after the fact,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “My pick to win on Saturday is War of Will.

“It’s like coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time, when you go to the Derby, you start studying it more.”

By attending the Kentucky Derby as the guests of NBC Sports, Newgarden got to experience a great event for the first time. This will be his eighth Indianapolis 500 as a driver.

He is in a unique position to compare the two sporting events have each feature a slice of Americana.

“You feel the festivity of it, it has the same sort of vibe to it,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “The way the stadiums are built, and the way people fill the infield and the stadium sections and seats. It looks like Indy, but just to a one-quarter or a half scale. To me, the whole vibe and atmosphere was very similar.

“I can see why the Kentucky Derby is such a special and historic event. Indy has that same charm. I hope people watching on NBC have that same sort of feeling.”

The fans who come to each event are big fans of the event, maybe more than for the sport. On Derby Day, 150,000 at Churchill Downs are big horse racing fans for that one day. The same can be said for the Indy 500.

“There are a lot of similarities,” Newgarden said. “There isn’t any live betting going on like you get at a horse track, but they have their books out, they see their stats and look at the drivers. At the Derby, they take look at the stats of the horses, try to understand the pedigree of the horses and their speed results.

“At Indy, they see the information on the drivers. People pull out their stopwatches.

“Horses and cars are quite different but very similar throughout the day.”

Fashion is also very important at both events in vastly different ways.

At the Kentucky Derby, it’s pastel-colored sport coats and fancy bow-ties for the men; springtime dresses with hats for the ladies. At the Indy 500, it’s checkerboard shirts, shorts and hats or American flag-themed apparel for both genders.

“It’s a little different fashion,” Newgarden said. “Here, you express yourself in creativity. At the Derby, you express yourself in color, style and tradition. People like to be creative about their racing gear and who they are supporting.

“You have styling on each front, but both are different at the same time.”

Newgarden and his fiancé were in the Stakes Room as guests of NBC on the top level of Churchill Downs.

“It was a very cool privilege to watch the race there,” Newgarden recalled. “I could see the infield and it’s like the ‘Snake Pit’ at the Indy 500. You don’t have the EDM artists or the fire going on during the race, but you could see people had been there and were having a great day. You could tell they were there for 24 or 48 hours prior.

“It was very similar to the 500.”

Both have a very similar, distinctive feeling of being a truly, “Big Event.”

“I wanted to take the event in and take a closer look to it, but people are there because it’s a big deal, too,” Newgarden explained. “Both events are all about horsepower at the end of the day.”

Newgarden placed a $100 wager on Maximum Security and was ready to collect on the 9-to-2 odds. But for the first time in Derby history, an “objection” was requested about the finish. Race stewards determined Maximum Security had changed lanes and impeded other horses in the race.

The horse that crossed the line first and was believed to be the winner was disqualified.

Newgarden still holds the betting ticket.

“It’s in my wallet if they ever change it,” Newgarden admitted. “I’m not expecting it, though. But if they do, it’s in my wallet to collect.

“I thought it was going to take heaven and earth to strip the winner. Don’t expect the unexpected, just like the Indianapolis 500.”

NHRA: Steve Torrence’s 2nd Top Fuel title was emotional roller coaster day

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There’s no question Steve Torrence is a proud Texan. When he’s not strapping on his racing helmet, the Kilgore, Texas resident proudly wears a black cowboy hat and shiny boots practically everywhere he goes.

It’s just part of who one of the Lone Star State’s favorite sons is.

Torrence also has a great deal to be proud of after winning his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in Sunday’s NHRA season-ending national event at Pomona, California.

In doing so, he joins seven of the biggest names in drag racing history to win back-to-back titles: Don Garlits, Joe Amato, the late Scott Kalitta, Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon and Antron Brown.

Torrence followed up last season’s 11 wins – including being the first driver to win all six Countdown to the Championship playoff races – with nine wins in 2019, giving him 36 career wins and 55 final round appearances in his career.

But as he was interviewed shortly after he clinched the championship — even though he lost in the semifinal round of eliminations — instead of being effusive and ecstatic, Torrence was also uncharacteristically somewhat solemn and melancholy at the same time.

After publicly thanking his team – “the best in the business,” as Torrence frequently says – he also quickly paid tribute to a young man from Texas by the name of Brandon Seegers, who was tragically killed in an ATV accident last week (the young man in glasses is pictured in the tweet below).

Torrence wanted the world to know who Brandon was, calling him one of Torrence Racing’s biggest fans. It wasn’t lip service. Brandon – a 15-year-old freshman football player at Carthage (Texas) High School – truly was one of Torrence’s biggest supporters. He’ll be buried Tuesday.

Torrence also paid tribute to Brandon’s parents. The young man’s father has worked 30 years for Capco Contractors Inc., an oil and gas company owned by Torrence’s family. In a sense, because of their close relationship, Brandon and his parents are extended members of the Torrence family.

“This is for the Seegers family, who lost their little boy the Wednesday of last week,” Torrence said. “He was the biggest Capco fan there was. We’re taking the championship trophy home to him. We’re going to give it to all the Capco guys and his family.”

Admit it, when was the last time you heard someone in sports win a championship and then dedicate that effort to a young fan who was tragically killed just a few days earlier in an accident.

But that’s the kind of guy Torrence is, one of the classiest individuals in motorsports. And if you don’t really know who he is, you should, because you might understand why Torrence is who he is.

At the age of 36, Torrence is not just a survivor of the 1,000-foot dragstrips wars from New Hampshire to Seattle to Phoenix to Gainesville and everywhere in-between.

He’s also a survivor of something much more important: Before he was Steve Torrence, two-time NHRA Top Fuel champ, he was Steve Torrence, cancer and heart attack survivor. That kind of thing gives someone a much different perspective than most other individuals.

Torrence knows how fortunate he is to not only be a two-time champion, but more importantly, to be alive to earn and enjoy both of those titles. He came close, really close, to not being here anymore. That’s why Brandon’s death hit Torrence so hard.

He even tried to keep from choking up when he told the crowd about who his young friend Brandon was.

Torrence spent much of the weekend at Pomona thinking about his young fan. It definitely affected Torrence’s mindset and demeanor, especially on Sunday, with the pressure packed championship on the line.

To illustrate how different Torrence acted, he was involved in an incident after the first round that was completely out of character. While he may be one of the most competitive drivers on the NHRA circuit, he’s also normally a very level-headed, calm and cool persona.

Torrence uncharacteristically slapped young opponent and part-time Top Fuel driver Cameron Ferre in the face at the end of the drag strip after they climbed from their race cars following their first round run and exchanged words.

Normally a fan favorite, Torrence was uncharacteristically criticized on social media and was met with a wave of fan boos after the race when he climbed on stage to accept his championship trophy and the big check that came with it. A contrite Torrence eventually issued a public apology to both Ferre and fans, admitting he was wrong. The NHRA is reviewing the incident and still could penalize Torrence.

“Tensions are high,” Torrence told NHRA.com. “There’s a lot of crap going on out there, but there’s still no excuse for me acting that way. I apologize to every fan, all my racing friends and racing rivals. It was a heat-of-the moment reaction on a day when emotions were high, especially in the Capco camp. I talked to Cameron and we’ll just put it behind us and move on.”

Given the championship pressure and what he was enduring emotionally, Sunday may not have been Torrence’s finest moment or best day professionally or personally. But at the same time, he further cemented why he’s on his way to becoming one of the best drivers in Top Fuel history, that he makes mistakes and was man enough to admit when he made one.

He also cares for others and what they go through perhaps more than most because he himself came so close to not being around to enjoy the success he has enjoyed to date – and all the additional success that he’s likely to continue to enjoy for many more years to come.

 

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