Detroit — As the calendar flips to May, the excitement of the IndyCar season grows with the drivers’ sights set on the Indianapolis 500, followed by the series’ lone doubleheader with the Detroit Grand Prix set for Belle Isle on May 31-June 2.
Penske driver Josef Newgarden was in town Tuesday afternoon at the Lear Innovation Center to promote the race, help unveil the Official 2019 Grand Prix poster — which was by artist Allie Fedak from the College for Creative Studies — and take on former Red Wings star defenseman Larry Murphy in the fowling challenge.
It was all in a day’s work for Newgarden, who actually got things started Thursday night by participating in the annual volunteers party with more than 500 people in attendance.
Newgarden said he enjoys his stop in Detroit during the IndyCar season. He should, since his finishes of fourth and second place sparked a strong half of the season and a series championship in his first year with Team Penske in 2017.
Now, Newgarden would like nothing more than an Indy 500 victory, followed by a win or two on Belle Isle to bring him yet another series championship.
“To speak technically just from a championship standpoint, it’s a very important event,” Newgarden said of the Belle Isle doubleheader. “Because it’s a doubleheader, we don’t have that anywhere else; it’s double the points so if you have a bad weekend it’s a double dip for your championship.
“You come right off the Indianapolis 500, which is your most important event of the year. And, for us at Team Penske, we really want to win that race, but then your second most important event from a championship standpoint is Detroit. You have them right back to back and there’s no sleep, and the team is going to keep going. We have to grind through it, but it’s a very important time.
"This is like our peak of our season. ..."
Newgarden is the points leader, off to a strong start with a win in the opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. — a street race similar to Belle Isle — second-place finish at Austin, fourth place at Alabama, followed by another runner-up finish in Long Beach, Calif.
The IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is May 11, followed by qualifying for the Indy 500 the following weekend, and then the Indy 500 on May 26.
This is Roger Penske’s 50th Indianapolis 500, having his drivers walk away with the winner's Borg-Warner Trophy 17 times, including Team Penske driver Will Power last year.
Newgarden feels like he is part of the home team with the doubleheader on Belle Isle. This will be the 30th year of the Detroit Grand Prix with the race being held on the streets of downtown in the 1980s before being moved to Belle Isle in 1992.
“Honestly, I feel quite a bit of pride in this event,” Newgarden said. “I have a lot of pride being with Team Penske and knowing where the heritage and history of this event comes from, and all the work that’s been put in to make it happen over the years and hopefully what it brings to the city.
“I started in this series in 2012 as a rookie, and I have to tell you it’s amazing to see the growth in the city and really the comeback, not just the event, but the city itself. I quite enjoy my time here. I love coming up here the first week after the Indianapolis 500 to try and make something happen.
“There’s so much passion from the people here in this town. It really starts with those volunteers. You’ve got 1,000 volunteers helping make this whole thing happen and they are the warmest people, so enthusiastic, wanting to make sure everyone has a great weekend.”
Since Newgarden entered the IndyCar scene, more than $13 million has been raised for improvement on Belle Isle. Now, it’s only a 60-day process from set-up to tear down or a 35 percent drop since the 95-day process back in 2015.
Aside from Power (seventh, second), Newgarden and Team Penske struggled on Belle Isle last year with Newgarden finishing ninth and 15th and Simon Pagenaud 17th and 10th.
“We need to be a bit better than we were last year as a team,” Newgarden said. “I think we underperformed for our standards, especially in our back yard. It’s a very important race for many reasons, for Team Penske, for Chevy, for Hitachi, which is going to be on my car.
“I think we have a good car. I think our street-course car is going to be significantly better than it was last year, and I’m excited about that. ...
“Last year, I think we got caught out of it with the aero kit. Our cars weren’t performing like we wanted them to with the new kit, because the year before our cars were quite strong. I think we figured that out, figured out what we needed for this type of place just to make the car more driveable. Last year, it was quite difficult to trust the rear of the car. I think we’ve made a car that’s more comfortable, it talks to you a little bit more and gives you a little bit more idea of what it’s doing, and hopefully that helps us win this time around.”
It could be a little more crowded around Newgarden’s garage area with every ticket having paddock access to get close to the action this year. In past years, fans had to buy paddock passes to get in.
“We wanted to give anyone who came on to our venue the access to the paddock, which is a cool idea," said Michael Montri, president of the Detroit Grand Prix. "It would be like giving everybody access to the dugout at Comerica Park. It just gives fans the chance to get up close and personal with the drivers. They are all very approachable, more so than in any other sport in my opinion, and to have that available at the Grand Prix this year is something that we’re proud of.”