RICHMOND, Virginia – After three weeks of celebration, with various trips around the country to honor Josef Newgarden for his second NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2019, the alarm rang on Tuesday morning and it was time for the Team Penske driver to get back to work.
This time, it was at Richmond Raceway, a 0.750-mile short oval that returns to the NTT IndyCar Series schedule on June 27, 2020 with a 300-lap race. Tuesday was a Firestone Tire test session, and also the first time INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen ran laps at a short oval measuring under 1.5-miles in length.
Newgarden returned to his Team Penske Chevrolet for the first time since clinching the 2019 championship on September 22 at the Firestone Grand prix of Monterey. He was part of a Firestone Tire Test at the 0.750-mile Richmond Raceway on Tuesday. The Chevrolet driver for Team Penske joined five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda on a test that had three different levels including a tire test, Aeroscreen test and returning to Richmond Raceway.
“It’s nice to get back to work,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com during a break in Tuesday’s test. “We’ve been enjoying the spoils of this year’s championship. It’s always good to get back going for another season. It’s really early days. We’ve got four or five more months to go in the offseason, but this is step one.
“To get the wheels turning, how we can win another championship? It’s exciting. I love doing this.”
It was the first time Indy cars had been on the track at Richmond since the last time the series raced here on June 27, 2009. That was the 2009 SunTrust Indy Challenge, a 300-lap race won by Dixon.
It had a rather successful run of races from 2001 to 2009.
After 10 years apart, Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier and INDYCAR President Jay Frye were able to bring the two sides together. That’s important for IndyCar as it returns to a part of the country that includes Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and North Carolina within a few hours driving distance of Richmond Raceway.
“It’s exciting to get a new addition,” Newgarden said. “We’ll treat it like a brand-new track because the cars that ran there back then were different. It’s a blank slate, very similar to our season finale this year at Laguna Seca. People had run at Laguna Seca 15 years ago, but the cars were so different, and teams were so different, it was essentially a new race track.
“That is what we get next year when we come back.”
It was the first time INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen has been tested on a short oval measuring under one mile in length. The past two weeks, the effort spearhead by INDYCAR, Dallara, Red Bull Advanced Technologies and Pankl was tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2 and Barber Motorsports Park on October 7.
One more test remains for the driver cockpit safety screen on November 5 at Sebring Raceway.
Newgarden loves short track racing and is a two-time winner at Iowa Speedway, including his win this past season on June 20 when he led 245 of 300 laps.
“Indy cars on short tracks are nuts,” Newgarden said. “That’s why I love short track racing in an Indy car. We’ll probably be doing 185 or 190 miles an hour around here. I wish we could fit in more short track racing with IndyCar. I would be the No. 1 advocate of it.
“I can already tell this is going to be one of my favorite tracks because I like the other short tracks on the calendar. When you get 25 other Indy cars around here, it’s going to be chaotic. Iowa races so well because we can get two lanes going and Richmond has that possibility as well. If we can get two lanes going here, I think the race is going to be fun.
“Turns 1 and 2 you have to turn the car very late. It’s an easy corner that can invite you in, so you want to dive into the corner quickly, but you have to be patient because the exit tightens up. In Turns 3 and 4, it’s the complete opposite. You don’t want to dive into Turn 3, but it opens up on the exit. It gets your mind thinking a little bit. I like that variation.”
Because it was a Firestone Tire test, the important factor for both Newgarden and Dixon was to get consistency so the Firestone engineers could compare one type of tire construction and compound to another.
The tire test is important to help Firestone develop the proper tire for next year’s race.
So far, however, Newgarden is able to draw favorable comparisons between Richmond and Iowa.
“This honestly feels like a smooth Iowa,” Newgarden continued. “That was my first though, this is a smooth version of that. It feels a little tighter, a little more compact and that makes it feel a little more intense. That’s exciting to have that extra intensity.
“I’m a big fan of short-track racing, specifically with INDYCAR. Iowa is really the only experience I have with short-track racing. I’ve always loved it.
“To get another one on the calendar has been very cool for me. I used to watch these races at Richmond when I was younger in karts. I always thought they were exciting races here.
“I’m excited to be here. Pretty easy morning for the most part just getting going. Like Scott said, we’re kind of just running through a big program for Firestone to make sure that we get everything checked off the list for them.”
If it were up to Newgarden, he would like to add six more short ovals to the NTT IndyCar Series.
“For me, as a first-timer here, I’m really excited about getting a chance to race here,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s going to be a great race on the IndyCar Series schedule.”
Tuesday’s test was also the first time Newgarden has driven a car with INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen. The October 2 test at Indianapolis featured Dixon and Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate Will Power. The October 7 test at Barber Motorsports Park had Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel for Chevrolet and Ryan Hunter-Reay driving the No. 28 Honda.
“It is very different from a perception standpoint,” Newgarden said. “When you get in the car for the first time, which today was my first experience, it feels like a different race car because visually it is quite different. But the more you drive it, the more you get used to it, the more it feels the same. The car feels the same and I’m driving it the same. All of the things that needed to stay the same, did.
“It’s been pretty easy for me to be positive because I don’t have any issues. I can see clearly through it. It took maybe 30, 40 laps, after that you’re used to it. It feels kind of normal at this point.
“It’s the third test of INDYCAR trying to confirm what the Windscreen is, how it can be improved. We’ve found solutions to get airflow better. Everyone at INDYCAR that has worked on the Aeroscreen has done a really good job.”