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Newgarden opens up on disqualification saga: “I want to be held accountable”

Written by Archie O’Reilly


While his teammates opted to release statements in the wake of the news that Team Penske had violated push-to-pass rules in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, disqualified winner Josef Newgarden had other ideas. He wanted to face the wrath of questions inevitably coming his way and go about breaking his silence on the situation through a special media conference.


“I didn’t want to put out a statement or try and do an interview over the phone or something like that,” he said. “I thought it was really important to get in front of everybody and have an opportunity to chat.”


St. Pete winner Newgarden, along with third-place finisher and Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin, were disqualified from the season-opening race after they illegally used push-to-pass on either a race start or restart, when it should typically be disabled. Team President Tim Cindric put this down to some software not being removed after a hybrid test.


It is the first disqualification of a race winner in the series since that of Al Unser Jr. in Portland in 1995 for a violation of his car’s ride height. That decision was later reversed but Penske has accepted IndyCar’s verdict and associated penalties for this latest case.


“I didn’t want to rehearse anything,” Newgarden said of the press conference. “Of course, I thought about it. How could you not? I’ve been thinking about this non-stop for 48 hours. I woke up at 3am this morning, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I was like: ‘Man I got to be rested to go speak to these guys.’” 


Pato O’Ward is now credited with St. Pete victory despite not leading a lap. Will Power, driving the No.12 Penske Chevrolet, was not deemed to have violated push-to-pass rules by using the system illegally and was promoted to second, albeit his car was not compliant with the rules so he was fined $25,000 - like his teammates - and docked 10 points.


The whole situation left those on the outside with many more questions than answers. But an emotional but ultra-professional Newgarden has put himself out there for interrogation…


Newgarden takes responsibility 


“I want to be held accountable for the actions I took,” Newgarden said. “And I want to tell people the truth.”


There was no blame shifting from the two-time series champion and reigning Indianapolis 500 winners. He was putting the onus entirely on himself and nobody else as the person in the cockpit ultimately committing the rules breach.


“There’s only one person sitting in the car,” he said. “It’s just me. So that responsibility and the use of the push to pass in the correct manner falls completely on me. It’s my responsibility to know the rules and regulations at all points and make sure I get that right. With that regard, I failed my team miserably. A complete failure on my side to get that right.”


It is an infringement that has cost Newgarden 53 points and 10 spots in the championship. And while it is still the very early stages of the season, any sort of error can be costly in the long run. Just look at how Alex Palou won the 2023 championship, finishing a low of eighth in any single race across the season.


“You cannot make a mistake at this level,” Newgarden said. “There’s no room for that type of mistake anywhere, certainly not at the top level of motorsports. I don’t want to hide from that. It’s an embarrassing situation to have to go through. It's demoralising in a lot of ways. There’s nothing that I can say that changes the fact of what happened. It’s pretty clear.”


There were several junctures through the press conference, hosted at Barber Motorsports Park ahead of the weekend’s track action, that a teary Newgarden had to pause to collect himself. He realises the scale of the error and the impact it may have on perception, hence he was highly apologetic.


“If there’s anything I want to say, I want to deeply apologise to our fans, our partners, my teammates, the competitors that I race against, anybody that’s in our community,” Newgarden said. “I’ve worked my entire career to hold myself to an incredibly high standard. Clearly I’ve fallen very short of that in this respect.”


Was the disqualification fair?


It may feel strange for someone who has just lost a race victory, but Newgarden has a positive perspective on the punishment he was dealt: “It’s good what’s happened. I’m really pleased about it.”


He did not think twice when DIVEBOMB posed the question as to whether he felt the punishment was fair, especially considering there are no modern cases of race winners being retrospectively stripped of their victory. Let alone six weeks down the line.


“Absolutely,” he said. “The integrity of the series is absolutely paramount. The series has to hold everybody accountable regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the intent. They’ve done the right thing by trying to throw the book at us, and they should. It just doesn’t matter what the intent was. 


“If you broke a rule, you broke a rule, and you should suffer the consequences. The series has to uphold that standard. It makes me proud that I’m part of a series that does that. That’s a series I want to be a part of. I think the penalty is fair. 


“It’s crushing. I’m going to look back on it, too, and say I don’t want that win on my books either. I don’t want it. I’m glad they're taking it away. If it was tainted, I don’t want to be near it. Unfortunately it is. I can’t reverse that in time.”


There is tangible relief from Newgarden that the violation was found before only the second points-paying round of the season. If the team had gone deeper into the season under the illusion they were doing no wrong, the consequences for Newgarden’s hunt for a third championship would have been even more extreme.


“The beautiful thing is that there was an issue in Long Beach,” he said. “If there wasn’t an issue in Long Beach, I would have kept going on my merry way thinking this was all normal. That’s probably got to be the good thing about it, is that we didn’t get halfway through the season.” 


Hitting the button on purpose


“You guys can call me every name in the book… you can call me incompetent, call me an idiot, call me an asshole, call me stupid - whatever you want to call me,” Newgarden said in one of the punchiest lines of the press conference. “But I’m not a liar.”


Newgarden readily admitted: “There’s no doubt that we were in breach of the rules at St. Petersburg. I used push to pass at an unauthorised time twice, on two different restarts. Those are the rules, and we did not adhere to them.”


One of the biggest revelations came early in the media gathering as Newgarden said from the outset that he would be frank about the situation and would not skirt around the “extremely clear” facts on the table. 


“I purposely was hitting the button,” he said - one of the biggest admissions of the day. “The tough part is the intent. I don’t think that intent matters at this point. The facts are… when are you allowed to use push to pass? The rules state you’re not allowed to use it until the alternate start/finish line.


“It’s very easy to tell when you’re using the button. I know when I pushed the button. It’s not anything I would try to hide behind. It’s also very obvious when you’re using the button. It comes up on my dash, there’s onboard cameras, people see the telemetry updates.”


This does not align with McLaughlin’s statement that he “hit the button out of habit” and quashed suggestions from those speculating that it could simply have been a mistake that was not realised. Newgarden made it abundantly clear that drivers feel when they get the added boost from push-to-pass.


“I’m not trying to hide from it,” Newgarden said. “I know exactly when I pushed the button. I feel it every time. It’s a very obvious thing.”


But why exactly does Newgarden, along with other drivers, press the button when push-to-pass should not typically be enabled?


“We’ve had jokes where you’re like: ‘Oh, the overtake button, hit it, maybe that will work,’” Newgarden said. “Out of habit, it’s not unusual for people to hit it before it’s activated. It’s very easy to do. Typically that happens right before the alternate start/finish line. Maybe you hit it early, you get a denied press, you have to hit it again. That’s a typical case for it. 


“It’s not unusual for someone to hit it accidentally or hit it out of habit.”


Team convinced of a rule change


There are far more dimensions to this story than a purposeful press of the button in anticipation of something going amiss. According to Newgarden, there was belief among his team that there had been some sort of rule change that they had missed. 


“The tricky thing about this whole situation is I didn’t know I did anything wrong until Monday after Long Beach,” Newgarden said. “It’s the first time I heard that I broke rules.”


Newgarden described his No.2 team’s version of the story to be “almost too convenient to be believable” - and that is how some will pedal with it. But, as with every side of this story, everyone’s version has to be listened to and taken into account.


“The key difference on the No.2 car, which is important to understand, is that somehow, some way, we convinced ourselves that there was a rule change to restarts specifically with overtake usage,” Newgarden said.


“We genuinely believed and convinced ourselves that, at St. Pete, the rule was now you can use it immediately on restarts, you don’t have to wait till the alternate start/finish line. I even wanted the team to remind me of this so I didn’t forget. It’s easy for me to forget this stuff with everything going on inside the car.”


Heading into Long Beach, following push-to-pass being legally available on starts and restarts, Newgarden claimed he maintained the belief that push-to-pass would be available to him on starts and restarts. He raised the point of communications that he had with his team that appear to reinforce this.


“You go through St. Pete, you go through Thermal, where it’s an actual change and everybody’s using it. Then you go to Long Beach and it’s still in the car. The first time that any of us hear about this software issue or mistake is of warm-up. 


“Even when you learn about the software issue that no one knew about, and it was fixed, I still believed the procedural difference on restarts was applied for Long Beach. I tried to do the exact same thing leading the race at Long Beach. I even pushed the button. 


“I came over the radio: ‘Hey, guys, the overtake isn’t working correctly.’ I said it throughout the whole first lap because it wasn’t working right.”


While Newgarden and his team did not know what others were doing, there was an assumption that this phantom procedural change meant other teams were also using push-to-pass in the same way. This must not have been verified because, as evidenced by the penalties applied to Penske, others were not doing this.


“If this is a procedure change, the one thing you don’t want to do is not be on top of that because if someone else is using it, then you are at a disadvantage to not use it yourself,” Newgarden said. “You want to make sure you're covering it. If you have a good jump, you wouldn’t use it. If you have a bad jump, you are going to use it.”


Why no realisation of the violation?


“I didn't review any of that stuff after the race,” Newgarden said. “I did my notes. I watched the race back. I didn’t assume anything was off or anything was different. 


“There’s a reason that Will didn't use it. The only person that was under the belief that there was a rule change was the No.2 car. There’s a reason Scott only used it 1.9 seconds. He’s truly hitting it out of habit.”


There is a disconnect in this story when you consider only one segment of the Penske team assumed there was a rule change they were not informed of. And questions are raised - as has been the case throughout this story.


Why did the team not try and verify whether there had been a rule change? Was there no dispute internally about why only one car held this belief? Even Newgarden understands why there is scepticism, especially when you consider this is one of sport’s most well-oiled operations. The slogan ‘Penske Perfect’ is often even banded around.


“When I learned there was a real issue here, I go: ‘How is this possible? Like, who safeguards this stuff?’” Newgarden said. “Then I learn after the fact that this has been possible for anybody at any point. It’s also not complex. It’s very simple. If you break down exactly what happened, it’s extremely simple what happened.”


Newgarden’s comments are related to a line of simple coding being left in the car after a hybrid test, where the team wanted push-to-pass available at any point. This was not removed upon setting up their regular-season cars for the 2024 season.


He has been left “baffled” that any team could have made that error and possibly gone undetected due to there being “no sort of checks in place” to snuff out the infringement. Penske were only found out after a systems error saw push-to-pass not enabled by race control in Sunday warm-up in Long Beach, only for Penske to still have access.


“The truth is, somehow we got that mixed up, it got entangled with the mistake,” Newgarden said. “It’s created some ridiculously unbelievable storyline now.”


Newgarden seemed to insinuate that - what could ultimately have been to Penske’s detriment - they could have gone on longer before the issue was spotted. This could have got them in even greater trouble down the line, as Newgarden acknowledged.


“No one genuinely believed we had done anything wrong,” he said. No one was looking for something inaccurate. It’s not something that just jumps out like a silver bullet. 


“Especially now learning how the software piece works, it’s something on the team side where it’s literally built into your preferences on your dash. There’s a digit there that literally sends this signal. I don’t think it’s something that we were looking for. I wasn’t looking for it.”


How Newgarden found out


It was not until after the Long Beach weekend, which he came away from with a fourth-place finish after a late coming together caused by a misjudgement from Colton Herta saw him drop two places from second, that Newgarden found out about the infringements six weeks earlier in St. Pete.


“It’s been a weird week, a very weird week,” he said. “I learned about this on Monday. I stayed in California with my family. We were there until Wednesday. I had a conversation with a couple different people on Monday, which is the first time that I was able to put two and two together. 


“One, the software issue was a problem that we didn’t know about. And also we were incorrect, we didn’t have the procedure correct on what was allowed and not allowed now on restarts. It’s crazy how this works. When you do something wrong, and you didn’t know you did something wrong, it doesn’t hit you immediately. 


“You get told that and you think: ‘Oh, wow, that’s crazy to hear this is what’s happening.’ Then you move to Tuesday, and it starts to really hit you that: ‘Oh, this is a big problem now, this is a really big problem.’ Then it comes out on Wednesday.”


There was no panic on Sunday morning at Long Beach, even though Newgarden did assume there was some sort of issue. He went through the entire race before things really gathered momentum once the weekend was over.


“There’s a whole different set of emotions that come into play with that because it’s a true reality,” he added. “It’s something you can’t control. None of us can control this. None of us can change it. I don't know how to describe it other than that. 


“I’ve looked at everything - I don’t know how you can’t. I know what’s been said, I know how people feel. What are you going to do? You just have to live with it.”


Speaking to Roger Penske


Conversations with various higher-ups, none more so than Penske Team Owner, as well as owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Roger Penske, were always going to be the most difficult for Newgarden.


“I have spoken to him,” Newgarden said when DIVEBOMB raised the topic of speaking to Penske. “I’ve spoken to him once. He did not take it well, whatsoever, as you can imagine.”


At this point, Newgarden was getting visibly emotional again. The impact of the situation on him, and the continual meaning of driving for Penske, was on display.


“I was interrogated at first. I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but I’ve not met somebody with higher integrity than that man. I mean that. Yeah… it wasn’t taken well.”


During this week’s debacle, many have also raised the idea of the impact of conflicts of interest, given Penske not only runs one of the series’ leading teams but also owns the entire series. 


“It’s difficult,” Newgarden said on that topic. “I’ll repeat: we hold ourselves to a really high standard. Everybody knows that. We don’t have any room to deviate from that. Whether you meant to make a mistake or you just did, it doesn’t matter. If it’s by accident or by design, it’s not acceptable. 


“So it’s hard to wrestle with it when it happens, regardless of the circumstances. I can’t speak on Roger’s behalf. Just from my side, I think we hold ourselves to a really high standard. Certainly I can speak for myself. I fell short of it. I just apologise to anybody that we’ve offended with it. I can’t say much more than that. I’m sorry it happened.”


Newgarden was also called in to speak to IndyCar President Jay Frye on Thursday ahead of the weekend’s track action getting underway at Barber on Friday. 


“He asked me to come see him,” Newgarden said. “I think he was just being nice. I think he wanted to be a friend. I told Jay the story, too. The sad thing about it was no one did this on purpose. That’s the saddest thing. 


“Even me telling Jay the story, I could tell looking at him that even he was having a hard time believing it. What are you going to do? If this guy has a hard time believing it, how is anybody going to believe it? I can’t affect that. So after today, I’m not going to concern myself with it because I just can’t control it.”


Regaining trust and moving forward


Nobody can quite know how things will evolve across the Barber weekend and in the coming days, weeks and even months. But Newgarden and all involved will be keen to put it behind them and regain any trust that has been lost.


“The facts are that I used it illegally,” Newgarden said. “I can’t change that. Whatever I say going forward will not change those facts. It kills me that it doesn’t. I wish I could go back in time and somehow reverse all this, but I can’t.”


Preparing to get back on track has been difficult. Newgarden has only been able to leave “a little bit of room” for the weekend and his regular preparations, so whether he is in the right headspace to bounce back immediately remains to be seen. But he is eager to get back in the car and back on track.


“Noise has been tough,” he said. “I don’t know how you can avoid it here. It’s impossible. After today, though, I’ll feel better after leaving here. This is what I wanted to do. I’ll be able to get past it once I get back in the car.”


He admitted he does not know how exactly he can earn back trust from those that do not believe the side of the story emanating from himself and Penske. But Newgarden remained steadfast in what he believes to be true, as much as he repeated the word “embarrassing” to describe the situation.


“I don’t know that anybody’s going to believe what I’ve told you here today,” Newgarden said. “That’s okay. It’s a crazy set of circumstances to try and just reason with. It’s certainly not going to come from words. It’s just going to take repetitive action. That’s all you can do is just repetitive action and hopefully I can stand on that in the future.”


There was sincerity to Newgarden. And, as he was the first to point out, not everybody will buy that. Not least his fellow competitors and the series’ other teams. This story will probably roll and roll and speculation will only continue. But Newgarden fronted up and, for almost half-an-hour, faced the media to convey what he believes are the facts.


“The truth is easy. It’s so easy to just tell the truth. I wanted to do that today.”

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