PRUETT: New development for Newgarden
Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Marshall Pruett / Images by IMS Photo, LAT
We work from the general belief that taking a young, race-winning driver like Josef Newgarden and exposing him to the full might of Team Penske will somehow transform the kid into an ass-kicking, championship-dominating machine.
If only it was that simple.
The Tennessean, who turns 26 in December, will indeed have access to every resource imaginable as the newest member of Penske's IndyCar empire. But as history suggests, delivering glory for the Captain will only happen after Newgarden makes a crucial mental transition.
After breaking into IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing – Josef's equivalent of community college – and rising to the increased scholastic challenge with Ed Carpenter Racing, the blinding spotlight at Penske University has finally arrived. Gone are the gravy days of being an underdog where any amount of success was celebrated due to the long odds that were involved.
For Newgarden, years of safe and measured grooming at SFHR and ECR have been replaced with immediate pressure and unfathomable expectations. Or so it would appear from the outside.
"The way I see things in my lens, I agree, it is a lot like transferring college," Newgarden said. "People have asked me what it's like being around this type of group compared to my past teams, if the pressures are going to be different, if I feel a different responsibility. And I tell them it's really not that different. I mean, it really isn't. It is all the same stuff."
Months away from his first race alongside defending champion Simon Pagenaud, 2014 IndyCar title winner Will Power and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, adjusting to the new surroundings is first on Newgarden's priority list. Based on his experiences so far, it would appear Team Penske is working hard to smooth Newgarden's transition before the 2017 championship gets under way.
"You have a great responsibility that is bestowed upon you, both on and off the racetrack, and I haven't experienced much of the on-track portion, mostly just the off-track stuff," he said. "But, sure, there are different classes, if you will, there's different professors, but a lot of the workload is similar.
"A lot of what they expect from you, all of those pressures and all of those different things that they really require, feels similar. I feel the same demand, the same responsibility to uphold all of my tasks and responsibilities.
As one of IndyCar's most private programs, Newgarden didn't know what to expect once he was welcomed into the team's inner circle. His findings might come as a surprise.
"I think there's a perception on the outside of what Penske is like," he said. "What is their working environment like? No one knows unless you're there. I had no idea what type of chemistry the group has, or how comfortable the working environment would be. Those are all questions I certainly had from the outside, as I think a lot of people do. At least people who have never been there. And then I got to experience the reality myself.
"What I have been able to experience so far in the last month, it has been wonderful. Just my life with the team has been very, very easy. They work at such a high level and they have such a large scope throughout the whole organization. Yes, it is a lot to take in, and there's a lot of information to process. But at the same time, it is almost easy to integrate yourself because they have so many tools and so many things to help you integrate."
It's too early to judge how Newgarden will fare at Team Penske once the engines are lit, but the 2011 Indy Lights champion appears to be on the right path.
"I know it's on me to learn and get plugged into their approach to IndyCar; they're not expecting to have to teach me to do anything to fill in any gaps," he added. "There is absolutely no magic within the Verizon IndyCar Series. If you look at what we did at Ed Carpenter Racing this year, we took the fight to Penske. We were, at times, capable of being on their level and sometimes better than their level.
"What I have learned is the same skill sets, the same things that I had to do before Penske, the same preparation, the same type of process that I go through on a race weekend, it's going to be exactly the same here. I'm going to be doing the same thing. I'm going to be doing the same job, using the same skills I have acquired over the years to try and find success at Penske."
The rosy, new-relationship period will soon be forgotten. Dealing with the hardest part – handling his teammates' ferocious hunger to win – will have to wait until March at the season opener in St. Petersburg. Although I'm not sure it has been fully realized, it's the one area of the Penske move that could burst Newgarden's bubble.
"I am excited to get to next year and see what the on-track portion is like," he said. "I guess in a way it has been cool because it hasn't been vastly different from what I have experienced in the past. You are just transferring up to a higher level."
That level change is where Newgarden's destiny will be revealed.
We've seen ingredients that point to the possibility of greatness behind the wheel at his previous teams, but possessing immense natural driving talent isn't unique among the legendary Penske drivers. What separated a Mark Donohue and Rick Mears from so many others took place between the ears, and the sooner Newgarden recognizes it, the faster he can shape himself into the driver RP is after.
Despite impressing the world while driving with part-time teammates at SFHR and ECR, Newgarden is in for one hell of a surprise at Penske. He's never encountered drivers who work harder or more obsessively outside the car than Pagenaud and Power. As he'll soon learn from the Frenchman and Australian, their trophies and driving titles are a byproduct of the untold hours spent outside the cockpit scrutinizing and addressing their weaknesses.
Where most drivers are gym rats, previous few add that layer – the one that separates the goods from the greats – found only in deep introspection. If Newgarden is going to eventually match and overtake Pagenaud and Power, it will require embracing the same kind of OCD that drives them to master every technical facet and all the inner workings of their minds.
Although Newgarden bristles at the idea of being perceived as incomplete, we should have an inkling of whether he arrived at Penske as a work in progress or a finished product by the time we get to the 101st Indy 500 in May.
"Yes, there are different resources; yes, there's a little bit of a different process, if you will from the way they are set up structurally at ECR," he said. "Most of what you have to do to be successful at this level has all got to be shaped at this point. So looking at it that way, you say, I should be able to hit the ground running.
"Hopefully, I can use the additional resources, the additional teammates, the extra data and just make myself better and make a better jump in performance. That is what I think everyone hopes, and I certainly hope that too, but time will tell to see how I react. And hopefully, there's not many hiccups along the way and we hit the ground running and we are successful right off the bat."
Will Newgarden buckle under the weight of having to practice his craft at its highest form? It's hard to picture; his steely determination after flying in practice at the 2015 Indy 500 and again after breaking bones at Texas in June (pictured) revealed a tough character who isn't afraid of the unknown.
Are there holes in his game waiting to be exposed by his teammates? Of course. We are, after all, talking about a 25-year-old being drafted into IndyCar's most successful team. Even a veteran like Pagenaud stumbled on his debut and endured a humbling year before figuring out how to curb the mental misfires.
Few would question Newgarden's ability to blitz the field on road and street courses, or on ovals, but that isn't the measure for greatness at his new home. When Indy 500 wins and IndyCar championships are the only acceptable outcomes for a team celebrating its 50th anniversary, the weight on Newgarden's shoulders will only intensify. Ask Juan Pablo Montoya how thin the line between hero and has-been is at Team Penske.
If Pagenaud needed a year to elevate his game to title-winning status, the professional revelations awaiting an up-and-coming driver like Newgarden should be significant. It will also make tracking his growth and maturation at Penske a thoroughly compelling thread to follow in the years ahead.
How fast is Newgarden? He's a rocket; we all know that. How hard will he attack his professional development, and will that effort surpass his teammates? The history books await those answers.