Josef Newgarden was just 21 the first time he raced in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He finished 11th.
It all went downhill from there. Over the next six months, the Hendersonville native suffered a driving version of Murphy’s Law.
In his Indianapolis 500 debut, an electrical power failure put him out of the race with 39 laps to go. His fuel pump malfunctioned in Milwaukee. He crashed in Iowa and Toronto. Twenty-three laps remained when Sebastien Bourdais lost control and bumped into Newgarden, sending him into a tire wall at Sonoma. His car was shredded, but luckily Newgarden walked away with just a hand injury that kept him out of only one race.
In total, he failed to finish six times during his rookie season.
“It was something every weekend — probably three or four things each weekend,” Newgarden said. “Too much for me to remember.”
But enough for Newgarden to take a better game plan into his sophomore season with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Newgarden was thrust into the IndyCar Series last year after winning the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship. That left him little time to prepare for the highest level of American open wheel racing.
So far an extended offseason and a new approach have paid off for the 22-year-old, who has already placed in the top 10 twice this season. Just four races into 2013, with the Indianapolis 500 looming on Memorial Day, Newgarden finds himself ahead of the middle of the pack in 13th place out of 34 drivers.
“I definitely have taken more of a conservative approach for myself,” he said. “It is almost necessary after having a year like we did last year. You’ve got to make sure to get a little rhythm going. You can’t go full out and try to make the world happen after you have a year like we did. You just can’t do that. You’ve got to get some momentum somewhere. I think we’re starting to get that.
“We’ve had some decent results. Not great results, but we’ve had good results. And that’s what segues you into the great results.”
Newgarden had a chance for a great result just two weeks ago at the Sao Paulo Indy 300 in Brazil.
His crew had to replace the engine a day before the race, preventing him from participating in qualifying. Despite the fact that he started in dead last, Newgarden charged to the front and was second with 10 laps left. He never took the lead, fell back into a crowded pack and finished just two seconds behind winner James Hinchcliffe.
The career-best fifth-place finish, though, reassured Newgarden his newfound plan of attack is on the right track.
“We made a lot happen in the race with strategy, and the team did a great job with pit stops,” he said. “We found ourselves right up at the front, and we were battling for the lead for most of the last quarter of the race. … I don’t think we’re far off at all. We were right there in Brazil. We had an opportunity to do it. We’ve already been in the position to make it happen. For sure, we’re ready to win. That’s why we’re here at the Indy 500. We’re not pulling in here to finish second or any place behind it.”
Newgarden’s ambitions to be the best aren’t limited to the racetrack.
A product of his generation, he has embraced social media with open arms — and plenty of laughs.
A frequent user of Twitter and Facebook, he has compiled several video blogs. Though he is young, Newgarden appears to be ahead of the curve with public relations tactics. Last year, he put together a series of “Incognito” videos in which he wandered around speedways and interviewed unknowing fans about up-and-coming driver Josef Newgarden.
“How can you not like that face?” Newgarden asks a fan outside of Texas Speedway. “He has blond hair. He has baby skin — look at that.”
Of course, he couldn’t help himself and published his own Harlem Shake video at the Yard of Bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When the bass drops, Newgarden is seen dancing with a thick Scottish bagpiper’s hat while his race jumpsuit hangs off his back.
Recently he pieced together a video that documents “The Life of a Race Car Driver.” In the two-minute clip, Newgarden once again shows his sense of humor by journeying around Indianapolis, where he has lived since last February. In his full racing jumpsuit and yellow helmet, he strolls through a grocery store on a motorized cart, plays in a pickup basketball game, caddies and even leads a karate lesson for a group of grade schoolers.
“Film production is definitely something I’d be interested in if I wasn’t racing,” Newgarden said. “Even with it, I think it goes hand in hand. It is fun to show the personality side and people love it. They are always quoting the latest videos that come out. They just want more of them. For me, it is a lot of fun to make. If people enjoy watching them, it is a double win.”
As Newgarden continues his quest for his first IndyCar victory, he said he plans to learn from the past in order to put forth a better future.
Right now, he enjoys living in the present.
“It is unbelievable that I’m in this position,” he said. “I’m definitely one of those lucky people who gets to do what they love for a living. I love racing, and I feel so blessed to be able to do it and everything that comes along with trying to be yourself and getting your own personality out there. I just try to be pretty true to myself.”