IN THE COCKPIT: Josef Newgarden, St. Pete
Written by: Josef Newgarden
Date: 03/29/2012 – 12:00 AM
One race down, 15 to go, or at least that’s the simple way I look at things. Let me rewind the clock to four months ago when I signed a contract to drive for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in the 2012 IndyCar Series and tell you how I got to make my rookie debut last weekend.
I walked into a team that was fully operational and who knew exactly what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go. From the moment I met the people in this group, I knew I’d made the right decision. The chemistry seemed to come naturally between us, and it has only grown with each day we have worked together. I’m only 21 years old, but I already know how rare that is and how fortunate I am to find myself in this position.
Jump ahead to today and you’ll know that we just came off of our first race weekend together at the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, FL. Personally I thought we had a less than stellar weekend, but everyone I talk to seems to think differently about our result. I guess I should be happy because it was my first IndyCar race, but Sarah and Wink didn’t hire me to be satisfied with an 11th-place result.
The most positive part is that we finished the race and kept the car in one piece heading into Barber this weekend. It was crucial for us to stay incident free and keep the car running for the full distance. So yes, a positive weekend in some respects, but far from what I know we can achieve together. I’m here to win races and championships, and I’m not sure how to think any differently about it.
The same goes for all the people working in this group, and if you do not believe you can be a champion at what you do, than what’s the point of it all? I have lots to learn, but in the same respect I feel more than prepared to be here and delivering top results. I’ve been trained by some of the best and been given opportunities that kids my age dream of. I will not make the mistake of giving less than my 100 percent for this opportunity I’ve received. This is the point in my career that I have been working towards all along.
The start of our St. Pete weekend was a bit rocky with a couple gremlins showing up in the first practice session. We lost most of our track time but managed to make it out with 10 minutes left. It was just enough to get a feel for where the car was, and to see what we needed to build on in session 2. The next practice was more productive than the first, but we did not get to maximize our new tires at the end with a couple yellow flags and traffic. I was left feeling eager to show more and could barely wait for the night to pass.
The next day we rolled out in the final practice with some tweaks to our setup and ready to show what we had. We ended up finishing P8 and we were right there in the hunt with the big dogs. It gave us exactly what we needed – confidence heading into qualifying in just a couple hours.
Qualifying would serve as the first time I ran the Red Firestone compound tires. We had notes from previous year, and I was told by many what I should expect. I was super pumped to get those bad boys on the car and to really attack the session. We ended drawing the first group pick, and we would be the first ones on track after loads of feeder series rubber had been laid down on the track. We ended up heading out on track first and thought we would be able to post a competitive time without playing the waiting game like everyone does. This proved to be a mistake and we quickly found out that the track was not in the same condition it was left in after third practice.
We tried to scramble and make a change with the car setup and get back out for another pass, but it was too late, we had played our hand and we had to suffer the 19th grid position we earned. It was not the end of the world, but it sure was disappointing knowing what we were capable of doing. There was no head scratching after that session. We knew were we were at and we knew what had happened that put us where we were on the grid. It was a matter of keeping our heads cool and focusing on the race.
I had a bunch of thoughts bouncing around my head that night, but I really just wanted to get back out on track and race. We started Sunday with damp track conditions for the warm up, but we were able to practice lots of hot pit stops in preparation for the race. As the clock ticked by and it got closer to race time, the excitement and tension was building in me. This is the big payday and the time to get things right, regardless of how your weekend had gone up to that point.
Standing on the grid before the event, I felt comfortable and more than ready to run my first IndyCar race. The team strapped me into the car and we waited for the command. As soon as we lit the engine and headed onto track for the pace laps, it was go time, full focus. The field had a clean start and surprisingly no incidents happened into Turn1, even more surprising is that they did not happen there all day! I had a decent start, but as soon as I got to Alex Tagliani, I got squeezed heading into Turn 10 and this allowed James Jakes to slip past by me on the opening lap. I found myself just feeling out the first stint and trying to settle into a rhythm. At lap 15, we had our first pit stop and we decided to jump on the three-stop strategy plan.
At the restart I was able to jump pass Tag into turn 1 and almost immediately after another caution was thrown. At this point I was sitting behind the man himself, Will Power. At the restart I managed to pass Power into Turn 1, and then the next lap I got by Simon Pagenaud in the same spot. This put me directly behind Justin Wilson, but everybody’s tires were fully back up to temp and this made passing difficult.
We were running quick times, and I actually felt like Wilson and I were quicker than the cars in front of us. We ran in this spot for some laps, until we reached our final caution of the day on lap 48. Somehow the pits were opened up with Carpenter’s car and a safety truck directly in front of it. I was following Wilson in, but he slowed suddenly with an issue and I was already confused with everything happening on the entrance into the pits that for all I knew, he was slowing for a legitimate reason other than running out of fuel. By this time three other cars had passed me, and I finally realized what was going on and went by Wilson to get into the pits. The SFHR boys serviced our car quickly and got me back out on track, but my pit entry error cost us a couple spots.
The race was restarted and I was able to get back by Mike Conway and Hildebrand but at some point in the exchange I ended up breaking the left part of my front wing. There was a moment when everyone in Turn 4 checked up, and this could have been where it happened. From this point on, it was just a battle trying to manage the car, and on top of that I ended up flat spotting my left front tire when I overtook Hildebrand into Turn 1.
Everything took a turn downhill for the following laps, but it was all about maximizing the result and finishing strong. I ran just around the top 10 from this point and tried to hold my ground until the last pit stop, but I could feel the damage getting worse and worse with increasing laps. The vibration from the lockup was worsening too and finally on lap 72, I was able to get into the pits for my final stop and a new set of tires.
At this point I did not actually know I had a wounded car, and I was really looking for some help with the new tires. When I exited the pits, I fell right in front of Charlie Kimball. The handling condition was not improved at all with the aid of the new rubber and I knew it was going to be a long run to the finish. I worked tirelessly to cover my territory and hold of a charging Kimball, but I was fighting a worsening condition. With 10 laps to go, I could see Wilson pressuring Kimball and knew it would be difficult to hold him off if he managed to get by. Wilson ended up passing Kimball (most likely from me holding him up badly…sorry, Charlie…) and Justin was on my tail for the final 5 laps.
I cannot describe how tough the car was becoming to drive, and my mid-corner speeds were dropping rapidly. On the final lap Wilson mounted a charge out of the last corner and there was nothing I could do to stop him. I ended up blocking him a little too aggressively for my normal style out of frustration with the wing damage. We ended up touching down the front stretch, but he still managed to complete the pass and I followed him over the line to end the race. I apologized to him afterwards, as I knew I was in the wrong for our contact.
That’s not my style, and with someone as respected as Justin, I wanted to make sure he knew that I knew I was at fault.
So there it is, the first race of the year, and the first race of my “big car” career was in the books. There are many points and notes to take away from the weekend, and we will be looking to apply all of our lessons this weekend in Barber. I can tell you that we are more than ready to give the guys up top some trouble, and not just for this weekend, but also for the entire year. Everyone at SFHR is aiming high and expecting the most from each other, which fits me perfectly.
Stay tuned, and I hope you’ll enjoy my “Rookie Report” after each race this season on SPEED.com.~Josef Nashville, Tennessee’s Josef Newgarden, the reigning Firestone Indy Light Series champion, drives the Honda-powered No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry in IZOD IndyCar Series. Learn more about the 21-year-old rookie athttp://raceroftomorrow.com, his team at http://sfhracing.com and follow Josef on Twitter @josefnewgarden.