Just because Josef Newgarden has become one of Team Penske’s “men in black,” the 26-year-old Tennessean assures he’ll still have the same entertaining, fun-loving personality.
His first good-natured joke about a teammate targeted three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. And, of course, it had to do with Castroneves’ slick, black hair.
“Look, I’m telling you, I saw Helio in the offseason and he had a couple of gray hairs going,” a smiling Newgarden said of the 41-year-old Castroneves. “Times are a changing.”
It’s all in good fun, at least for now, right?
“I threw out the first shot, OK?” said Newgarden (shown at left having fun with James Hinchcliffe on a visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2014). “He gets a little peppery in the offseason. That’s OK. That’s OK. I like it. It’s distinguished. I’m going to try and convince him to let it go. I want him to have it during the season.”
It’s a Verizon IndyCar Series season that Newgarden thinks and talks about with unbridled anticipation and enthusiasm. A fourth-place points finisher last year with Ed Carpenter Racing, he now joins the most successful team in Indy car racing.
There’s undeniable mystique to being a part of Roger Penske’s operation, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in open-wheel racing last year by sweeping the top three points spots and winning the championship with Frenchman Simon Pagenaud. Team Penske has won 14 Indy car titles and 187 races.
Adding a young American with talent — Newgarden won three races in the past two years — suggests life will be even more challenging for the rest of the paddock. And the driver who isn’t shy about teasing competitors has received his share of playful ribbing, too.
“Ed (Carpenter) has,” Newgarden said of his former boss. “I get it more from ECR. Ed pokes and prods at me, like a brother would. That’s to be expected. Ed and me are very close. He throws me some jabs and teases me.
“From the team side, it’s been a really smooth transition. There’s been no rookie hazing or initiation period. It’s been a very cool transition. It’s been a very seamless transition.”
Then again, his teammates have been busy elsewhere. Pagenaud returned to France to celebrate his first series title. Will Power and wife Liz welcomed the birth of their first child. Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya spend quality offseason time with their families in Florida.
“That’s probably why,” Newgarden said of not hearing much teammate banter yet. “Everyone is doing their own thing. They don’t have time for me. They’re busy with their own stuff.
“As soon as we get into the season, I’m sure we’ll have more interaction on Team Penske. Are there any jokes to come? I don’t know. Hopefully not too many. If they do start to get jokey, I’m going to try to get ahead of it and pull pranks on other people because I don’t want them ahead in that race.”
Newgarden is replacing Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 winner, in Team Penske’s No. 2 Chevrolet. Montoya has agreed to return in May to race in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Newgarden had often wondered what it would be like inside at Team Penske. Since his first visit to team headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, the aspiring driver whose dreams have come true has continually been pinching himself.
“From the outside, you don’t know what that’s like,” he said. “You don’t know what their relationship is like amongst the people. You don’t know what the atmosphere is like. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how awesome it is. It’s a really great working relationship.
“It’s been hitting me every moment. When we ended up making the transition in October and I decided to do this, there’s been moments for the last four months, every week there’s been something that’s just been cool. I’m telling you, the cool factor of racing for Team Penske hasn’t worn off.”