'More lively' IndyCar draws raves from Josef Newgarden

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden proudly showed off the sleek new 2018 IndyCar on Tuesday morning at the Detroit auto show at Cobo Center

Newgarden, the 27-year-old defending Verizon IndyCar series champion, explained the difference between the new version of the IndyCar and the former one to dozens of people who were in attendance at the news conference, which included his boss, Roger Penske and legendary driver and 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti.

“I tested a couple of times, I think the bulk of our testing is going to happen in February, but it’s a great car,” Newgarden said. “I think it looks awesome. I mean, this is what an IndyCar should look like, so I think everyone’s pretty thrilled about that. Looks were not the first priority — actually the performance was, but looks were secondary, and we wanted it to look good and I think they really achieved both objectives.

“(Speed) should be higher; there’s less drag on the car, has less downforce, but less drag so the speed should be pretty good. I think it’s going to be exciting to drive. It’s going to move a lot more. You’re not going to be as comfortable as what we’ve been in the past, so it will be a learning curve for all of the drivers now.

“The car is so much more lively now. It’s very unsettled on the entries. The rear is unsettled pretty much all over the place, so just trying to calm that down and figure up the set-ups to accommodate it, that’s going to be our biggest problem to start, but it’s also more progressive, a little more predictable on what it does.”

The season gets underway March 11 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Indy 500 is set for May 27 with the series’ lone doubleheader scheduled for June 2-3 on Belle Isle.

Sure, you would think Newgarden would want to stay in his 2017 IndyCar, since he won four races and won the series championship in his first year with Penske, but he’s just fine with the new car.

“I actually like the new car more,” Newgarden said. “Of course, you’d want to have the same car that you can just refine and work on your set-ups that you’ve built over the year, but a new car I think provides even more opportunity to separate yourself further so if you do a good job you can really potentially open up the gap so I don’t mind it.

“I always feel confident with being a part of Team Penske, and I think Chevrolet has provided us a great package the last six years. They’ve won the manufactures championship the last six years, so I think you have to have some confidence in what we’re able to do, but I think we’re also very aware of Honda and what they’ve been doing the last couple of years. It’s not been easy to beat them, particularly last year so I think we’re going to have a serious challenge, but I think we’re the best in the business, certainly from the Team Penske side of making that happen.”

While Newgarden won the series championship for Team Penske with Chevrolet power, Honda drivers have won three of the last four Indy 500s with Takuma Sato winning the Super Bowl race of the series last year. And, Graham Rahal swept the doubleheader on Belle Isle with Honda power last year. Rahal and Sato will be teammates this season with Rahal/Lettermen/Lanigan Racing.

Penske is the main force behind the race weekend on Belle Isle and excited with the contract that runs through 2018 with a possible extension in the works.

“Well, I think we’re committed to the Grand Prix here, as you know that from the standpoint of Detroit and of course the race here and I think it brings a lot of economic development into the city during those weekends and we’re excited to go forward,” Penske said. “We don’t want to let that (doubleheader) go because we have a lot of people come Saturday that can’t come Sunday and we get all the momentum (from Indy 500) which is good.”

Penske likes the new car for multiple reasons.

“I think the good news is, I start with the cost to go racing and I think the fact that we’ve been able to adapt, you know this body work, this aero kit to the existing car is terrific,” Penske said. “We have probably a couple hundred thousand to spend to bring them into the current format, which is terrific. The testing that’s been done is putting the driver back in the car. You don’t have the downforce, yet you have the speed so you’ve got to brake getting into the corner.

“I think what they’ve done, No. 1 from the competitive standpoint and also when you look at it from the driver’s standpoint, it puts the driver back in the car so it’s pretty good. I think you’re going to see more of the driver and it’s going to differentiate probably a little bit more who can drive this type of car because you don’t have the downforce and the car is not stuck to the ground like it’s been before.”

While the face of Team Penske, Helio Castroneves, has retired from the IndyCar series — aside from competing in the Indy 500 — Penske is thrilled with his drivers, series champions Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and now Newgarden.

“I love our drivers,” Penske said. “Well, Josef is a superstar and to see what he did last year for us is amazing. He’s an exciting young man, an American driver who’s had success and he’s done a great job for us on and off the track so to have him back next year is terrific.”

And, Penske is excited to see some talented American drivers in the series.

“I think when you look at the series over the years it’s the United Nations and now with (Graham) Rahal and with Josef, we’ve gotten some good talent there (American drivers) which we’re excited about.”

Mario Andretti’s son, Michael, is a car owner in the series and has Mario’s grandson, Marco Andretti competing for him, along with American Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was the 2012 series champion, and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent company of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, feels the series’ future is bright with 21 drivers winning races the last three years, including 10 last season, attendance is up and four new teams have been added for this season.