MADISON, Ill. – He was wearing Simon Pagenaud’s firesuit. He was driving Helio Castroneves’ car. Josef Newgarden was certainly doing his part to meld into the team aspect of Team Penske.
“I’m a smorgasbord of Penske flavor,” the newest member of Team Penske said today during a Firestone tire test at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Announced last week as part of the juggernaut Verizon IndyCar Series operation for 2017 and beyond, Newgarden has been thrown right into the fire with the reigning champions. He has already tested twice this week – Monday at Road America and today at Gateway outside St. Louis in preparation for the series’ return to the 1.25-mile oval next season.
Newgarden looked out of place wearing Pagenaud’s yellow Penske Truck Rental firesuit and slipping into Castroneves’ No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet at Gateway. So much so that Ed Carpenter, owner of the team Newgarden left for Penske, couldn’t help but joke about it.
“I can’t believe Penske doesn’t have a suit for you yet!” Carpenter told Newgarden with a smile. “I would’ve had one ready for you.”
Newgarden smiled. The 25-year-old Tennessean has plenty of reasons to smile, joining the team that has delivered 14 season champions and 16 Indianapolis 500 winners – both Indy car records. Newgarden was one of the primary tire testers today, along with Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Most of all, Newgarden appreciated the opportunity to assimilate with his new team and engineer Brian Campe.
“The best initiation you can get is just getting going as quickly as possible and try and start that gelling process between everyone,” Newgarden said.
“Everyone’s very supportive, we’ve got a great group of people that I think work really well together. I’ve been busy but I’ve had a ton of fun. What’s been surprising is how quickly we were able to go testing, how quickly we’ve dived into figuring out what we need for race weekends, what we need to win races, trying to understand the relationship between me and Brian.
“It’s kind of surprised me how quick it’s all happened, but it doesn’t seem to be rushed.”
In addition to Newgarden and Rahal, drivers doing team testing at Gateway were Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan. The oval poses a unique challenge not seen in the Verizon IndyCar Series since Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi in 2010. Like Motegi, the oval just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis is egg-shaped with a tighter radius in Turns 1 and 2 than Turns 3 and 4.
“This track’s fun; it’s definitely different,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s got a little bit of everything. It feels a little like Milwaukee in areas, it feels a little bit like Phoenix with the different shapes between (Turns) 1-2 and 3-4, which is unique. And I love short ovals, so the more short ovals we can add, the better I feel.”
In addition to the tire testing, INDYCAR used the day to assess aerodynamic alterations and turbocharger boost pressures to hone in on the proper 2017 race specifications. Andretti tested the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda and stated his case for less downforce and more boost when the series returns in full force next year.
“Early on with the amount of downforce these cars have, it’s just nailed,” he said. “We’re running flat at a place I’ve never been (before). The track seems fun. I think we need to get some raceability out of it so not everybody is just flat out. I think we need to evaluate some things to make sure we put on a good race for the fans.”
Hinchcliffe takes break from dancing to test
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe took a break from “Dancing with the Stars” rehearsal in Los Angeles to participate in the test at Gateway. Along with professional dance partner Sharna Burgess, he registered the highest judges’ scores of the night in Week 5 competition Monday.
Despite the hectic cross-country schedule to get him from Los Angeles to St. Louis and back, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Honda was excited to see the track for the first time today.
“Everybody likes coming to a new track,” Hinchcliffe said. “You always want to be the first one who figures it out.”
Indy cars raced at Gateway from 1997-2003. Race winners at the track make up a who’s who of Indy car racing: Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Castroneves. So it’s no wonder Hinchcliffe didn’t mind the long trip to make the test.
“This is a track I’ve heard about over the years,” he said. “It was off the schedule before I was around. I saw some of the old footage from it and heard some of the old stories, so it’s one of the ones I’ve always wanted to come to in the country. I know everybody in the series is excited and I think everybody in town here is excited as well.”
The Gateway event will be the 15th of 17 races on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, run under the lights on Aug. 26.