INDIANAPOLIS — What would you do if all your dreams came true?
No, for real. If there was only one item left on the checklist of “Stuff I want to do when I grow up” that you scribbled onto a sheet of paper in your childhood bedroom, and you were able to finally cross that last one off, what would you do?
That’s what happened to Josef Newgarden on a sunny, frantic, extended, exhausting Sunday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 32-year-old overcame a so-so month of May and a record three red flags to rocket around defending champion Marcus Ericsson as they approached the race’s final two turns, then swerving and weaving to hold on to that lead and win the 107th Indianapolis 500.
“In a dream life, truly a dream life, there was that one last accomplishment that I couldn’t grab,” he said moments after the victory, standing alongside the Borg-Warner Trophy that will add a silver likeness of his face before the race’s 108th running. “So, when it happened, when the dream came true, my first thought was, ‘You know what? I am sharing this with everyone here.'”
And he did. Stopping his Roger Penske-owned Chevrolet by the finish line and pulling a parkour move reminiscent of his 2016 appearance on “American Ninja Warrior,” Newgarden slid through a gap in the catch fence to climb into the grandstands and celebrate with the 300,000 fans in attendance like no driver had before.
“I had never allowed myself to really think, ‘OK, Josef, when you win the Indianapolis 500, this is how you’ll drink the milk or kiss the yard of bricks’ or any of that,” he explained, all while his shoulders were still wet with milk and his lips still carried a bit of grime from those bricks. “You don’t let yourself think about it or rehearse it because deep down you also think, well, maybe it’s never going to happen. But I will admit that I did think that, hey, if I ever do win it, I want to go into the crowd.”
In his mind’s eye, he saw himself scaling his way to the top of the main frontstretch grandstands. In reality, he barely made it to the stands at all, immediately getting enveloped in those fans who were rushing down out of the aluminum seats to greet him.
“It got out of control pretty quickly and I thought maybe the best thing was for me to get out of there!” he recalled moments later. “But I will tell you this, I knew exactly where that gap in the fence was because of all the times I’d thought about how I would get out there to them if it ever happened.”
Looking back now, for anyone who knows Newgarden’s story, and certainly for those who have met him, was there really any chance it was never going to happen? Just look at the rest of that life dreams checklist.
Land a job in the IndyCar Series. Check. Land a job with the greatest team in IndyCar Series history. Check. Win a bunch of IndyCar races. Check, 26 times over. Win an IndyCar championship. Check and check. Be really handsome and even nicer than you are handsome. Check. Marry a Disney princess. Check. (It’s true.)
Then … finally … sure … win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing after a dozen tries, many that ended in soul-crushing heartbreak. Check.
Of course, none of it was that easy, just as winning Sunday’s race wasn’t easy.
His family sacrificed finances and time to bring young Josef up to Indiana so that he could try his hand and right foot on the Hoosier State’s legendary Indy 500-inspired karting facilities. (“They did more than I could even get into right now,” he said Sunday afternoon).
Sarah Fisher, who started nine Indy 500s as a driver, took a chance on Newgarden by putting him in her car. (“Her daughter texted me this week that she thought this would finally be my year.”)
Roger Penske hired him away from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, and while Newgarden earned a pair of IndyCar titles, his inability to capture the 500 while driving for the owner who has won in Indianapolis more than any other three times over somehow dragged down his status as a true all-time great (“[Penske has] now won 19 of these, and I told him in the winner’s circle that it’s time to get number 20”).
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 28, 2023
Even marrying the Disney Princess wasn’t easy. He and Ashley Welch met at Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle when she was portraying Ariel, aka “The Little Mermaid.” By the next day, they had tracked each other down via the internet and went on a date, but then she moved to Japan for a year to portray princesses at Tokyo Disneyland. They made it work. They’ve now been married for four years and have a 1-year-old son, Kota.
The stress that Ashley Newgarden wore on her face on live television from the No. 2 car pits mirrored that of the audience watching along during the race’s seemingly endless red flags and restarts.
“Ashley,” the typically super-composed racer said as he fought to choke back tears, “she’s the one who has to listen to me at home. She has to live through every up and down. She’s the one who had to help me navigate the frustration and the heartbreak that comes with this race when you don’t win it. It’s all or nothing at Indy. It just is. And she has had to steer me through it when I’ve not been able to steer through it myself.”
He certainly steered through it Sunday, using the same checkers-or-wreckers slipstream and then the left-and-right draft-breaking “Dragon” maneuver to beat Ericsson that Ericsson himself employed to defeat Pato O’Ward one year ago. Ericsson, unsurprisingly, was unhappy with IndyCar officials’ decision to throw a third red flag with only two laps remaining, a valiant effort to prevent the race from ending under the pedestrian speeds of a caution flag. But that meant the final restart went green flag almost immediately, with zero warmup. That’s when Newgarden pounced.
“I just feel like it was an unfair and dangerous end to the race,” the defending champion complained in the postrace broadcast. “I don’t feel like it was enough laps to do what we did. We’ve never done a restart out of the pits. I think we did everything right. … I feel like we won that race.”
But late-lap dramatics have become the norm at Indianapolis, last year to Ericsson’s benefit. The 500 never used to finish that way. Then it became a once-every-few-years occurrence. Now it’s business as usual. The race has finished in a closing-laps scramble every year since Simon Pagenaud’s 2019 win.
“That, to me, has only added to the difficulty of it,” Newgarden observed. “It’s no longer enough to work all day to be in the lead as the race nears its end. Now, do you even want to be in the lead? And if you want to be second, it still has to be kind of a perfect second. The point is, the Indy 500 has always been unpredictable. Now it’s even more unpredictable than it’s ever been.”
Sure. Unpredictable, no doubt, but in the case of Josef Newgarden, he of the only one item left on the checklist of dreams, it also felt inevitable. As did his response to that question, what would you do if all your dreams came true?
“I am going to celebrate this, that’s what,” he said. “All night, as long as they will let me. Then I’ll get to work adding new stuff to that list.”