The most frequent question reporters ask IZOD IndyCar Series rookie driver Josef Newgarden is how a kid from Nashville ended up at the elite level of open wheel racing instead of in the fendered-world of NASCAR that dominates his home state of Tennessee.

Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda
Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda

Photo by: Michael C. Johnson

Newgarden’s answer is typically very simple: he saw a challenge and he wanted to drive fast.

Twenty-one-year-old Newgarden and his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR) team head to Iowa Speedway this weekend for the Iowa Corn Indy 250, and the familiar melting pot of open wheel and NASCAR racing will be palpable.

Iowa Speedway was designed by NASCAR star Rusty Wallace. The 7/8-mile paved tri-oval is a standout on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

"Iowa’s great, and it's one of my favorite ovals,” Newgarden said. “It’s unique to a lot of other tracks, and it builds a lot of character with the bumps in turns one and two. The layout provides for really challenging driving.”

Last year’s IZOD IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway arguably provided the most exciting competition in recent INDYCAR history, and Newgarden is ready to try his hand at the track.

“It’s difficult to get the car around that place for a whole race because of the amount of banking and the size and shape of the track,” he said. “It’s a fun place to go and if you can master it it's pretty rewarding."

Newgarden has fond memories of racing at Iowa Speedway in 2011 in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. He won the Sukup 100 at Iowa Speedway on his way to winning the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship.

He has been back to Iowa a few times since racing last year and is looking forward to the hospitality and love of racing shown by Iowans.

"The race fans in Iowa are very passionate about all types of racing,” Newgarden said. “IndyCar is one of the best shows they bring to Iowa Speedway all year. The crowd is always huge and it’s a great event to race at because they make you feel so welcome."

“JOSEF NEWGARDEN (Driver- Nashville, Tenn.)

What do you think about the heat races at Iowa? Have you ever participated in something like that? “I’ve done something similar to the heat races in the Ford Festival in Europe where you run heat races before the final to determine your starting position. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s something new for IndyCar that will be cool to try out.”

Talk a little bit about the team’s test last week in Iowa. How was the car? “I thought we had a really productive test, but you’ve got to keep focused on the big task at hand, which is the race. We really have to put our setups to good use this weekend. We’ve had good setups all year but unfortunately they haven’t translated into good results.”

Iowa is an even shorter track than your last race in Milwaukee. What is your main focus at a track like Iowa? “It’s all about keeping the car in one piece and not getting involved in an incident so you can make it to the finish. Being a short track, there are some good opportunities to pass. There’s also a chance to run away from the field if you catch a break.”

Of Note: Josef Newgarden’s spotter on ovals this season is former Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) driver Travis Gregg. Coincidentally, Newgarden drove for SSM in 2011 when he captured the Firestone Indy Lights championship. As a driver, Gregg collected three victories with SSM at Homestead, Kentucky and Texas in 2005. He also won seven Firestone Indy Lights poles with SSM. With a shared history, the two have formed a unique partnership.

Newgarden on having Travis Gregg as a spotter: “Travis is really good. He’s a great spotter and he’s comforting in my ear. I worked with him last year in Lights so it’s great to have him on the IndyCar program. He says the right things and makes me feel comfortable in the car.”

Travis Gregg on spotting for Newgarden and transitioning from driving to spotting: “I started helping Sam Schmidt with other Indy Lights drivers after I stopped driving. I kept connected with him over the years and last year at Las Vegas I spotted for Josef when he was driving in Firestone Indy Lights.

“You would always rather be driving the car yourself but spotting is probably the next best thing. It’s pretty exciting to watch the sport from a totally different perspective.

“It’s cool to see Josef where he is now because several drivers who spent time at Sam Schmidt Motorsports over the years moved up to the IZOD IndyCar Series. It’s good to see that Josef has made the system work for him and progressed to this level.”