Bloomfield Hills — Josef Newgarden is not just the 2017 IndyCar champion. At 26 years-old, the charming Tennessee native is the new public face of Penske Corp., a sprawling, Fortune 500 company based in an anonymous, white office building at the corner of Telegraph and Square Lake Roads here.
Penske’s racing division is anything but anonymous.
While the corporation flies under the radar in Metro Detroit, Team Penske flies the company flag before millions of fans on sports cars, NASCARs, and open-wheel IndyCars. One of IndyCar’s rising stars, Newgarden was snatched up by Team Penske — and its legendary boss, Roger “The Captain” Penske — for the 2017 season and he didn’t disappoint, taking the championship crown his first year on the job.
“I wasn’t sure I deserved to be here,” Newgarden told me from the top of Penske HQ. “But when you have a year like we had you feel validated, and really proud to be a part of this organization. When you look at Penske overall there are 50,000 employees across the world. Just to be a small part of it is really a big deal.”
Newgarden is a big deal even as he humbly says he’s “just a driver at the end of the day.”
In the expensive, competitive American sports marketplace, Newgarden is a poised, All-American poster boy for his sport — and for a multinational company sponsored by household names like Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, and Verizon Wireless.
Together with his boss, who has captained an unparalleled 16 Indy 500 wins, Newgarden’s success burnishes a Penske brand that brought in $30 billion in revenue in 2016 from global entities that include truck rentals, manufactured truck parts, auto dealerships, and race teams.
It’s also a brand that is at the heart of Detroit’s renaissance, including marketing the 2006 Super Bowl and remaking Belle Isle with the annual Detroit Grand Prix. And Newgarden is fluent in all things Penske, including the Motor City.
“I love it out there. The Detroit Grand Prix has brought a lot of change to (Belle Isle),” he said. “The park wasn’t really getting a lot of attention before the race came there. Its brought a positive impact — new lighting, clearing trash, a lot of refurbishment. I think it should stay there.”
I first met him riding shotgun in a 650-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. At 150 mph. At Willow Springs Raceway north of Los Angeles.
“That Camaro ZL1 is my favorite thing,” he smiles with the boyish grin of a 20-something with a bedroom wall full of car posters. “I’m still trying to convince Chevy to give me one of those. It’s awesome!”
Chevrolet provides Team Penske’s IndyCar engines, so Newgarden is Chevy’s hot-shoe representative for media roll-outs of production vehicles like the Camaro. It’s a chance to show off his people skills as well as his extraordinary driving talent.
That talent vaulted him quickly through the IndyCar ranks from his rookie debut for the small Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team in 2012 to his first series win in 2015 to his spot at Penske. His aggressive style caught the Captain’s eye, and Newgarden asserted himself on a team that already boasted IndyCar champions Simon Paugenaud of France and Australia’s Will Power — not to mention three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
In a statement move this year, Newgarden fought toe-to-toe with defending-champ Pagenaud for the lead at 200 mph, pulling off a bold, wheel-banging pass for the victory. The move momentarily rankled Pagenaud, but impressed the Captain.
“Roger likes that kind of racing. He likes drivers that take calculated risks,” says veteran motorsports writer Mike Brudenell. “That’s what he saw in Newgarden.”
Newgarden’s people skills make the total package. He was up at 5:30 a.m. on the day I interviewed him, traveling around Detroit to promote the kick-off of ticket sales for the 2018 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. The Grand Pric will be held June 1-3. He hit multiple media interviews, met sponsors, signed autographs with Penske employees in Bloomfield Hills, and give thrill rides to Detroit Grand Prix auction winners at GM’s test rack in Milford. Despite the pressure of working for an iconic franchise, he seems to enjoy it.
“There’s not a lot of tolerance for mediocrity here,” said Newgarden. “But Roger and the entire group give you time to sort things out the way you need them. From the outside you see they are the most successful team in IndyCar history — so if you can’t get it done with them then you probably don’t deserve to be there.”
While he juggles his new notoriety and corporate duties, Newgarden stays focused on the task at hand: winning another championship in 2018.
Team Penske gives him all the resources he needs in a motorsports world that, like other fields, has been transformed by computer electronics. In the off-season he will spend hours on simulators and sifting computer data to set up his 2018 IndyCar racer.
“As a race car driver you’re always just trying to crush people,” Newgarden smiled. “Race car drivers are the greediest people in the world. They win a couple of races, but it’s never enough.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” Sat. noon-1 p.m. on 910 AM Superstation.