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Recentring and refocusing: Newgarden’s quest to get back to loving IndyCar

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Perfectionism can go both ways.

Focusing intensely on your profession and meticulously making sure every detail is refined can bring huge success. That is why Josef Newgarden is a two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion. He has been the embodiment of a perfectionist.

But, at the same time, the pressure of expectation placed on yourself that you have to be perfect in everything you do can weigh. And heavily.

Newgarden is now four seasons without a championship victory. Following his most recent success, coming in 2019, he finished a frustrating second in three successive seasons. Latterly in 2023, an almost “comical” run of “calamity after calamity” - in the 33-year-old’s words - saw him break that run and finish fifth. 

“Those three years finishing runner-up in the championship were tough,” Newgarden said during a media gathering on the first of IndyCar’s annual Content Days in January. “Those were very crushing. I would like to change the cycle.”

It does not feel right to call 2023’s fifth-place finish a crisis, especially given Newgarden won the first four of five oval races, including ending a 12-year run of trying to win the Indianapolis 500. He achieved a legacy-defining goal and displayed history-making oval form, despite a regression in the championship.

But in the Tennessee native’s mind, there does seem to have been some sort of crisis moment prompting him to undergo an off-season of significant reflection and refocusing.

“In a lot of ways, just to be transparent, I want to get back to loving this,” he said in a powerful statement. “Not that I didn't love it in the past, but I think when you get bogged down by too much, then sometimes the joy slips away. I’m excited to get back to why I started doing this, why I started going racing.”

Newgarden spent the off-season essentially sorting out his priorities in an attempt to get back to loving and enjoying IndyCar again. He earmarked what his main focuses should be and cut out unnecessary extra things that detracted from the enjoyment of his profession. Of everything, a lot has been made of the fact he has gone as far as unfollowing everybody on social media.

“I pared down a lot of things, which I think has been productive personally,” he said. “I’ve tried to refocus my task list and my priorities. I’m trying to get back to some of the core things. Not that I wasn't working on my core objectives in the past or last year, but I think there was definitely room for improvement and trying to create some better focus in areas.”

Now 13 years into his IndyCar career, Newgarden feels “very different” to when he first started and has been trying to determine what is best for him at this stage of his career. By IndyCar standards, he may only be at the mid-point of his career at 33 years old, despite being on the brink of his 200th race in the series.

“I think getting back to some simplicity would be good for me,” he said. “It happens in life where everything can become complicated, regardless of what business you’re in or what facet of life, if you want to start a family. We all can become too busy or too clouded maybe with ambitions, and I think for me, that was probably true in some respects. 

“So I’m trying to just find clarity on what is most important to me objective-wise, so I’ve gone through that process a little bit. This sounds probably more grand than it is. Simple things, I would say, have been taking place to try and implement some simplicity.”

As another part of his mentality shift heading into 2024, Newgarden is not only reducing his responsibilities but is also attempting to cut down on the weight of perfectionism as part of his attempt to return to simplicity. The pressure he has placed upon himself has evidently grown too great in recent years, sapping some of the enjoyment out of his racing.

“I’ve had to let go of that mentality,” he said, speaking more recently after the season-opening race on Sunday. “There’s no sustainability in my perfection. I’m definitely a perfectionist. I’m an introvert, but I get hyper fixated on just trying to maximise everything. I think my mentality was in a lot of ways win or nothing all the way throughout my career.”

Newgarden’s season of revitalisation has started in about as good a fashion as he could have hoped. He felt “really, really comfortable” in his No.2 Team Penske Chevrolet en-route to taking pole position and a dominant victory on the streets of St. Petersburg, leading 92 of the 100 laps and ousting Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward by over eight seconds.

It was the start of Newgarden applying his revised approach to competitive action. And, whether during celebrations or when speaking to the media, he looked reenergised, heavily motivated and much more free of pressure across the weekend. 

“I think, simply put, it’s just nice to feel positive,” he said. “I'm just really encouraged about everything going on in life, and I’m not overloaded. I think I overloaded myself in the past, and that comes from my desire to just excel. I want to excel at everything that I do. 

“Sometimes I’ve just got to pare it back and say, look, you just can’t do everything. I’m not saying that I was doing a great job at everything, but I think I was trying to. And I’ve had to tell myself it’s alright, it’s not going to be perfect. You’ve got to remove that expectation. 

“Simply put, I just wanted to be happier again being at the track and enjoying the job and the process. And I do. I’ve let go of some of the perfectionism. It’s in there. It’s never going to fully go away. I just want to be the best I can be every single year.”

Newgarden often drove with a ‘win or bust’ mentality. If he was not winning, then he was not achieving the perfection that he has strived for and he was not coming away from IndyCar race weekends in a happy state of mind. When trying to knit together championship fights, this is an unsustainable way to go about things.

Over time, culminating in his revisionism in recent months, there appears to have been realisation from Newgarden that his perfectionism has almost become counterproductive.

“Even today it was creeping in,” he told the media post-race in St. Pete. “I’m like, we’re winning this race today or we’re not winning it. I was going to go for it or nothing. It is my mentality. But from a bigger picture standpoint, I just don’t think that’s sustainable.”

Much of Newgarden’s refocusing has been around simply getting back to the core of working on the race car with his team and driving that race car at the weekend. That is what the racing driver dream looks like for young drivers making their way to the big leagues.

“I’m not going away from my passion and my desire, but I’m trying to recentre my enjoyment in what I do,” he said. 

“I enjoy working with a race team so much. It’s more than just driving the car really well on any given day. I mean, it is an entire process, stepping into a group with many different people coming together and trying to figure out a problem. That problem is different every single weekend, and it’s just so much fun to go through that with a team. 

“We did that this weekend. It was a little different than what it was last year, and we found new solutions and we executed in the moment and made it happen on race day. I’m getting back to the basics of loving that. I really felt that today. I enjoyed driving. I really had a good time, and it all worked out, too, so that makes it a little bit more enjoyable.”

Becoming a racing driver is a dream. And IndyCar was the dream of young Josef Newgarden when he stepped up to the series in 2012. It is no ordinary job. Or a job that people really believe could ever become tedious.

But for Newgarden, it did start to almost become that way - all circling back to the excessive pressure that was left to loom over him.

“I don’t want to dive into it too aggressively, but it did start becoming a job,” he said. “This is how I make my living, and it’s how I provide for my family. It’s not a gruelling job - anyone would be lucky to be in the position that I’m in. But if you’re fortunate enough to be here and do this, you should enjoy it. 

“It’s a very difficult job at the end of the day, too, because it’s purely results based. It’s hard to be in this type of job or position and know that you’re either here or not here based on your results. You’re either winning or you don’t have your seat. That’s literally how it works. It’s kind of hard to find that enjoyment factor. 

“I’d always had it. I’d learned how to thrive in the pressure and still enjoy the job, and I think it just slipped away at one point. I was buried with a lot of other things, and I just tried to simplify my life and get back to happiness. And I think I’ve done that in a lot of ways.”

It remains in its early stages, but a change in approach for Newgarden does seem to have been a successful decision so far. When he is laser-focused and ‘in the zone’, he is a fierce driver. His St. Pete display appears to bode ominously for the competition.

“I feel really happy,” he said. “I feel motivated, I’m enjoying showing up and seeing everybody with smiling faces... I hope we can win, I think we can. And if we don’t, that’s alright. We’ll figure it out next time. I’m getting back to that point.”

Newgarden was one of a host of drivers to credit Team Chevy’s improvements over the opening race weekend. As a team, Penske also appear to have made huge off-season strides to end a win drought on street courses spanning back to 2022.

Newgarden himself took his first NTT P1 Award since Detroit in 2022 and his first street course win since the third round of the same season on the Californian streets of Long Beach. Team improvements are definitely a part of this immediate step forward in 2024 but Newgarden’s shifted approach is undoubtedly also a very important factor in these gains.

“I went into the race comfortable with the fact that let’s just have a good day,” he said. “If we don’t win, that’s not the end all, be all. Let’s just get good points - I felt that today.”

Newgarden is already thriving without the pressure of worrying too much about the ‘what ifs’ of what could cause something to go wrong. 

“I look at 17 races and I go, ‘How do we win 17 races?’” he said. “You lose one race and you already are mourning the one race you lost. You just can’t live on that hill for that long. It gets you a little bit lonely. So I’m enjoying it more, simply put.”

Oval form - with Newgarden doing enough to win seven successive oval races up to Gateway last year if not for a mechanical failure when dominating the second Iowa race in 2022 - has to be maintained. Development of road and street course consistency for Penske alongside this could see them become an imperious force.

“Just because we were strong on ovals last year doesn’t guarantee that we will be strong on ovals again this year,” Newgarden said. “I’ve made that mistake many times where you think you can just go with the same recipe that worked the year before, and it doesn’t always transfer. 

“I think we’ve made the necessary steps to be better on a street course. I think we can get there in a road course too. We just have to make sure we preserve that excellent oval package that we’ve had. But if we can get all of them, then that’s what we were lacking last year. We just did not have the consistency across the board.”

A new and improved Newgarden for 2024 seems ready and in the right headspace to mount a serious challenge to get his hands on the Astor Challenge Cup for the third time.

He has been very open, frank and almost vulnerable in his discussion about falling out of love with IndyCar. But his enjoyment certainly seems to be on the way back. And IndyCar is better off for that.


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