Overheard shortly after Josef Newgarden’s bump-and-run pass of teammate Simon Pagenaud at Gateway Motorsports Park on Aug. 26:
“I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Team Penske transporters tonight.”
To which the obvious response would be:
“A fly? Dude, have you ever looked closely at the Team Penske transporters? You can’t find a fingerprint, let alone a fly.”
Jokes aside, Newgarden’s arrival at racing’s most polished operation has been a primary theme of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. His bold style and approach have been both brave and successful (see Gateway) and audacious and unsuccessful (see Sunday’s meeting with the pit exit barrier at Watkins Glen International).
Whether good or bad (and he’s almost always good), Newgarden is impossible to ignore. He’s precisely what the series needs to bridge the gap between an older generation of racers and the younger set aiming to replace them. He is, quite plainly, the best thing to happen this season, and the fact that he’s leading the championship with 85 laps remaining is solid proof of it.
As INDYCAR approaches its finale Sept. 17 at Sonoma Raceway, Newgarden is three points ahead of Scott Dixon. Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud remain actively in the mathematical mix, but all attention is on the 26-year-old from Nashville.
And it’s thoroughly refreshing, even if he isn’t always perfect.
After the run-in with his teammate, Newgarden didn’t apologize publicly to Pagenaud, who was clearly upset about a pass that nearly put him in the wall and definitely cost him victory.
Instead, Newgarden said this: “One thing I didn't want to do was touch him too hard. I think if I would have stayed too far left, I would have jumped the curb (on the inside of the turn) and that would have taken both of us out. I tried to get Simon to move over a little when we were coming to the opening of the corner. We both had to slow up. Fortunately, (it) worked out well for us on the (No.) 2 car side. Pagenaud didn't get up into the wall or anything like that, so I would say it worked out OK for him, too.”
Then, after the awkward contact with the wall at Watkins Glen, Newgarden blamed himself.
“Whenever I make an error, it's always difficult for me,” he said. “I feel like I'm sure a lot of drivers are their own worst critics. But I never like making a mistake, and so whenever I make a personal mistake that was just on my own doing, it's always hard and I'm always hard on myself for a while. It takes a couple days for me to get over those type of things. … I hate making personal errors and doing that to the team.”
Perhaps it isn’t the fearlessness of his game that we find most refreshing. Bravery is watchable, whether it ends well or not, but perhaps what we really like about him is the honest explanation. His supreme confidence stops short of the doorstep to arrogance. He’s good, he’s occasionally brash, but he doesn’t cross the line into smugness. He’s brave, certainly, but he can tell you why he’s brave in a way that isn’t overwrought.
This is what James Hunt had, what Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt were, what we desire from racers. Supreme confidence that doesn’t bubble over into jackassery. Fearless passes, occasional mistakes of aggression, drama from first lap to last. Newgarden’s style is unmistakable, and we can’t look away.
He is what we’ve always wanted – or said we wanted – in Verizon IndyCar Series racing. A young American who presents himself well, speaks with intelligence and wheels a car like a controlled banshee. He’s part preparation, part seat of the pants and all entertainment. This is the very reason we watch motorsports. The choices don’t always work for him, but at least they were attempted. If it works, we’re talking about it. If it doesn’t work, we’re still talking about it.
Newgarden also is a sponsor’s dream (see previous three paragraphs for evidence). When asked a question, he answers in remarkable detail, often with humor. He talks a good game, but he also plays a good game. He’s profound enough at explaining himself that his comments after the Gateway incident made a modicum of sense, even if they didn’t to Pagenaud. Newgarden is marketable, good with fans, probably even likes puppies. People have been waiting for his arrival for decades, and he hasn’t disappointed. Even when he disappoints himself.
When things start to move at Sonoma, we’ll be watching him. Whether it ends well or doesn’t end well, he will be bold. Even flies on the wall, if you can find any, will be entertained.