The Verizon IndyCar Season wrapped up roughly a month ago, with a fresh face now it’s champion in Josef Newgarden. The group discusses his potential, the 2018 schedule, favorite Helio Castroneves memories and more.
Josef Newgarden is the youngest Verizon IndyCar Series champion at 26-years-old since a 23-year-old Scott Dixon won the first of his four titles in 2003. The two share another distinction, as Newgarden was also the first former Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion (2011) since Dixon (2000) to win an INDYCAR title. While Dixon has built a legendary career that rivals the greats of the sport, was 2017 the start of similar career for Newgarden?
Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer and Host of Drafting the Circuits podcast: It is far too premature to speculate on where Newgarden’s career will take him. Certainly all the pieces are all in place, but that is no guarantee of continued success. I think of a guy like the late Dan Wheldon, who won the Indianapolis 500 and the title in his third full season.
After that, Wheldon moved over to Ganassi, where he was capable of winning races, but never contended for the championship. He was dropped in favor of Dario Franchitti, moved to Panther where he became an also-ran and was eventually dropped in favor of J.R. Hildebrand when he found himself without a full-time ride.
Of course, a fortuitous Indy 500 win in 2011 put him in the frame for a full time return, but the world was robbed of seeing that come to fruition.
Considering Dixon, the talk of him being a legend has only begun recently, and it was the result of several seasons of honing his race-craft. His first championship in 2003 was a bit of a fluke, contesting against a weak field. In 2008, he put on a domination display all season long, and then proceeded to watch his teammate Franchitti rack up three consecutive titles. The titles that Dixon won in 2013, and 2015 really started the legend talk as he continues to climb the all-time list. So, to answer the question simply, ‘Is Newgarden headed down the same path as Dixon?’ Ask me again in about five years.
Christopher DeHarde, INDYCAR & Road to Indy Writer for Motorsports Tribune: It could be the start, but Newgarden’s biggest obstacle is complacency. He’s spent his entire career building to get to Team Penske and now that he’s won a title it’s easy to get complacent with the role he has in the sport. He cannot forget the struggle he went through to get to where he is and can’t get comfortable because motorsport is results driven. If Newgarden keeps driving like he has something to prove, then he’ll have a career as good as if not better than Dixon.
Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Tribune and freelance contributor to INDYCAR.com: It is certainly the start of something special. Many fans have clamored for an American star that can rival the international flavor that resonates in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and now they have it. Although, I feel there are other young American’s ready to burst on the scene as well, but I think Newgarden could be this generation’s Rick Mears.
The 2018 INDYCAR schedule was recently released with many of the same dates and venues returning, with the exception being a drop of Watkins Glen in favor of Portland International Raceway. Is this everything we could have hoped for as the sport continues to move forward?
FS: I can’t say that the schedule was everything that I had hoped for, but it is a step in the right direction. The date issues with Watkins Glen kept us at 17 races, where I would have preferred to see expansion. If Mexico City comes to fruition, then that’s 18. Steady, measured growth is the key to building here. I believe that if we can add one or two events a year, while not dropping any, until the schedule is at about 22 races. That would be just about perfect.
CD: I wish there was a way to get Watkins Glen on the calendar, but sometimes things just don’t work out. Having every race return besides Watkins Glen is great for track equity and having Phoenix and Long Beach back to back was a great idea from a logistical standpoint. There are a couple of other small things I might change, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things.
JB: For now, yes. The series is growing methodically year after year and I feel that by 2020 we will see 20 races on the schedule. I know many fans are eager to see more, but the economics of today, in all of motorsports, doesn’t allow it on a sensible level. I like the idea of hitting up Portland because it’s a market that isn’t tapped by other racing series and it’s proven to be successful in the past. So it simply makes sense.
As for Watkins Glen, it was a joy to cover the INDYCAR event up there last month at such a wonderful venue for racing. If the right situation comes up, I feel that they would be quick to come back and make it work.
Some questions still linger as to who will be where for 2018, but with some new faces in new places confirmed, what has been the most attractive announcement thus far?
FS: Of the announcements thus far, the Sato to Rahal is the most intriguing. Rahal Letterman Lanigan has shown that they can compete with the big dogs time and time again,but still lack the wherewithal to seriously contend for the Title. The single car status has hurt them in terms of development, and Bobby Rahal has made it clear that he would love to have a second car with a veteran driver. He now has exactly that. With the 2018 package being new for everyone, testing and development will be crucial, so adding that teammate for Graham Rahal comes at the perfect time. Factor in that Takuma brings along some funding from Honda and Panasonic and it’s a win for the team.
CD: It was a tie between Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot getting full time rides but with Robert Wickens getting the nod to join Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the Canadian that was forgotten in the F1 ladder system will be coming back to North America after racing in DTM. To me, that’s the biggest announcement because he was moderately successful in Europe but fell through the cracks, much like Brendon Hartley.
JB: With some guys still up in the air, the nod for this situation is probably Robert Wickens. Not just for what was stated by DeHarde, but because he was solid in the ride swap situation with James Hinchcliffe, a childhood friend who is also now his teammate, and was at the ready at Road America. I think he will need a lot of seat time, but the personality and the resume are enough to warrant something special coming from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ newest driver.
Among the new faces and some of the current ones, who of them will be the first to possibly visit Victory Lane?
FS: Picking a winner among the new faces is tricky, because one has to decide if the team is up to the task of winning. I would love to say that Gabby Chaves cracks Victory Lane first, but the Harding team is a great unknown, having only two prior starts in the series. Realistically, looking at all the info, I would peg Robert Wickens with the best chance of pulling off a win, with Spencer Pigot right behind with nearly identical odds.
CD: I’ll go out on a limb and say Spencer Pigot. With a bit more polishing on his road course qualifying, he could be a serious contender if he didn’t have to pass so many cars to get to the front. He knows how to pass, now his biggest obstacle is how not to have so many cars to pass to get to the front.
JB: No love for Ed Jones? The reigning Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year that finished third in this year’s Indianapolis 500 with a damaged race car. With both of you favoring Pigot, and it does make sense, I’ll rival this and say Jones.
Lastly, we saw an end of an era as Helio Castroneves moves on from full-time competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series and goes over to Team Penske’s Acura sports car program. He will still compete at the Indy 500 in hopes to claim a record-tying fourth win. With 20 years in Indy car racing under his belt, what is your favorite Helio moment?
FS: There are so many Helio moments over the years, it is hard to nail one down. I asked my wife for help with this question. She says, “How about when he was dancing in that yellow pimp outfit of DWTS?” Well, we got a good laugh out of that, but that’s not the answer. I guess I’d have to go back to the first time I met Helio. It was the year 2000 at the Nazareth Speedway, and the time I was doing some freelance writing for Marlboro Racing. I had just finished up interviews with Rick Mears and Gil de Ferran. I ran into Helio as they were readying for the fan autograph session. I looked at him and said, “I have a feeling you could win this race tomorrow.”
His face broke out into a huge smile, and he said, ” Hey Man! Come over here, I wanna shake your hand. No, I wanna give you a hug!!”
It was at that moment that I realized that this guy had enough exuberance and personality for three CART drivers, and that he would quickly become a favorite with the fans.
CD: Probably him winning Indianapolis in 2009. He just got acquitted in the tax evasion trial, he found out during the month of May that he was going to be a father, and he won the pole. The race was just icing on the cake in a storybook six weeks for Castroneves.
JB: The Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway this year. I get the Indy 500 wins and how those are the iconic milestones, but Helio Castroneves captured the win in the cornfields after a long overdue winless drought. And he did it at a track that Team Penkse never previously won at. It was special because it proved to everyone that he can still win. He is as genuine, charismatic and good natured a person as anyone could hope for.