At 29, Josef Newgarden, already a two-time IndyCar champion, is readying for his ninth season in the sport. But Newgarden, a Nashville native, will tell you that winning the Indy 500, where his best finish so far is third, is what he most wants to achieve.
With the IndyCar season starting up later this month, Newgarden sat down with New York Times reporters to talk downforce, Derek Jeter and taking off his shirt on “America Ninja Warrior.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with the basics. What does it feel like to be in a racecar going at top speed?
There’s a perception problem. Most people think they can imagine what driving a racecar is like. But driving a Chevy Malibu at 60 miles an hour on the highway is completely removed from driving an IndyCar at 240 miles an hour.
It is a much more intense experience. It’s like bolting yourself to a jet fighter plane. The acceleration, the deceleration, the lateral movement, those are very akin to a roller coaster.
And then you have the physical toll. There’s no power steering; nothing’s power assisted whatsoever, so the comforts that you’re used to on a standard road car: That’s gone. There’s no supple suspension to help you absorb the imperfections of road conditions. All of that gets directly shot into your body.
Is weight training and conditioning important, then?
I’m a big rower. It’s very taxing cardio-wise, and it’s full body and core muscular movement. I also lift weights to build muscle mass, and we do a lot of circuit training to turn that into endurance. And we do cardiovascular-specific exercises to create that good cardio base.
You got your start in go-kart racing. How old were you?
I was 13. I wanted to do it since I was 3, 4 years old. There’s not a lot of outlets for that in Nashville. It took until I was 13 to convince my dad to find a competitive go-kart track. The closest place was 300 miles away up in Indianapolis.
Karting is very good for learning those early basic principles of how to race.
How fast do those karts go?
The little kids, 3, 4 years old, go 25 to 30 miles an hour. The karts that I drove when I was 13, those went about 60.
You’re a newlywed. Should you have children, and they are interested, would you have any qualms letting them kart?
If it was their passion, I would support it 100 percent. I think I would not push them. It’s a difficult sport, a very sponsor-based sport. Baseball, football, basketball cost a lot less money. Someone’s got to pay for the kart, the fuel, the tires, the mechanic. That only gets worse the higher you go up the ladder. I would hope they could get into a more cost-effective sport.
You were on “American Ninja Warrior.”
It went so-so. I got the opportunity about a week and a half before. What are you going to say? No? I had no time to prepare.
It’s not so much that you have to be physically prepared. But you really need to understand the technique. Where I failed was at the third obstacle. I didn’t understand how to swing myself on these pendulum devices. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the core, it’s that I didn’t know how to do it.
You show up, they show it to you, then you get one attempt. You get no practice run.
Halfway through, you took your shirt off. Why?
My strategy was to stick to the log roll, a rubber matted log. My skin is going to be stickier to stick to that. I have more of a chance to hang on. It worked; I got through that one.
You’re a Yankees fan. How did that come about?
I was a baseball player growing up. They’re so iconic. I liked the brand, even as a kid. The N.Y. symbol. Then I became a Derek Jeter fan. I loved the way he represented the Yankees. I respect dynasties that continue to find success. Sustaining success in sports is so, so tough. That is what I want to do. I want to figure out how to win the most championships of anybody. I want to set records.
Jeter never changed his approach. In the postseason, everyone else got tight and uncomfortable and tried to do something extra. He was the same.
I like that. People always ask us, what about the Indy 500? What do you have to do different to win it? For me, that’s what I haven’t achieved yet. Really, at the end of the day, you shouldn’t change. If you do, you set yourself up for failure. You can’t turn the event into this monstrosity in your head; it has to be treated as a normal race.
How is Indy as a track?
It’s four 90-degree corners. So it’s not a true oval, more like a rectangle. Every corner — they look identical. But they’re all slightly different.
And the wind really comes into play. You’re constantly looking at the flags and the windsocks. It affects the car so dramatically, corner to corner. If I’m heading into Turn 1 and the wind’s behind me, I know the car’s probably going to want to push to the wall. But now in Turn 3 the wind’s heading toward me, so the front’s probably going to want to turn way too much. And then you have the crosswind. It’s always moving, every lap.
At Indy, it’s really heightened how much you have to be on the ball.
Hard-core fans like to debate “downforce.” Can you explain that, and are you happy with the current level of downforce in IndyCars?
A jet is designed to go up in the air and create lift. The IndyCar does the opposite. It’s got wings, but they’re turned the other way, and they push the car into the ground.
What you don’t want is to have it produce too much downforce. That makes it easier to drive. It’s like a Band-Aid for bad drivers. The less downforce you have on the car, the more tricky and challenging it is. If you think you’re the best driver out there, you want to make the car as difficult to drive as possible.
Right now, in IndyCar, we’ve taken a lot of the downforce away. The cars have become a lot more lively. I think it’s perfect, actually.
When you drive, or before races, do you think or worry about wrecking?
You can’t go into the race thinking, “How do I not wreck?” You’re not going to drive the car at 100 percent of the limit that it has to be driven at to win. You can’t think about the what-if.
Every now and then, you’re going to step over the limit of the car, and you’re going to wreck it. You kind of have to sometimes; it’s healthy to do that. To understand what the limit of the car is.
Do you ever think of trying Formula One or any other racing series?
Yeah, definitely. When I was 17, I got to go to Europe. I wanted to stay over there and try for Formula One. I did really well, but then ran out of money after my second year.
Formula One is very glitzy and glamorous, but if you’re not in a Ferrari or a Mercedes you might as well not show up. There’s zero chance you’re going to win the race. That’s demoralizing.
I’d like to do it. But nowadays, it’s kind of hard for any American. There’s a Formula One bubble in Europe. I’ll be honest, they look down on Americans a bit over there. It’s really silly. There’s American talent that if they got the right seat at the right time, they could win championships, no problem.
When you drive on the streets, do you speed?
I don’t, actually. I drive a bit like a grandma. I’m driving a Tahoe half the time. It’s not built to be driven quick. I have had one speeding ticket.
Did the cop say, “Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?”
That happened to Mario once! Mario is the coolest. He’s 80. He’s got the most swagger in the pit lane. He gets cooler the older he is.
Benjamin Hoffman contributed reporting.