RACING INDY: THE DRIVERS
For IndyCar drivers, winning the Indy 500 is an opportunity to transcend the sport. Victory does not just define a career, it can validate a lifetime of work. Al Unser, a four-time winner of the Indy 500, remarked, “People don’t ask you about Phoenix or Milwaukee. This is the place that is recognized. You go across the finish line saying to yourself, ‘Did I really see that checkered flag?’”
The power and allure of the Indy 500 is not lost on the newest generation of racers. Jet Linx had the opportunity to speak with Spencer Pigot and Josef Newgarden, both rising stars in the IndyCar series, to discuss their thoughts on the Indy 500.
Newgarden has amassed 10 wins, one championship, and placed third at the 2016 Indy 500. In his first season with Team Penske, he won the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship. At last year’s Indianapolis 500, he finished in eighth place. Newgarden is known as a versatile athlete and has participated in the NFL Combine, an Indiana Pacers Slam Dunk Contest, and even a 2016 episode of “American Ninja Warrior.”
Pigot is a current resident of Indianapolis and is also a driver for Ed Carpenter Racing. At last year’s Indy 500 he finished in 20th place, but the 25-year-old already has a lot of impressive victories under his belt. He’s eager to prove himself at this year’s Indy 500.
What inspired you to pursue motorsports?
Newgarden: For me it started with cars and the fascination with speed. That translated into a love of racing… but where it really took hold of me is when I started to get a deeper insight into the technical aspects of racing.Working with engineers, pushing a car to its limits, interacting with the team… all working towards a common goal. I’ve found that to be where I get a lot of my passion for racing.
Pigot: I started in motorsports at a pretty young age. My parents bought me a dirt bike when I was five and I immediately liked it more than any other sport I had tried. My dad’s passion and background were in car racing so when I was seven, I got my first gokart and have been driving ever since. When I was young, I loved it because I was actually going fast, whereas when I played baseball or soccer I wasn’t actually feeling any speed.
As I got older, I loved being in control of a machine. You’re not only pushing yourself to the limit of your ability, but you’re also pushing this very complicated vehicle to its limit. The machine’s only purpose is to go as fast as possible around a track. I actually feel very calm and in control in the car. There are flashes of adrenaline, but I think things happen so quickly and you have so much to focus on that you don’t have much spare energy to consider how cool it is that you’re driving an IndyCar.
Do you have a family background in motorsports?
Newgarden: My dad was a big motorsports fan, raced a little himself, but just never had the funding to take it very far. Definitely was passion there. His passion for it is definitely what got me here… having that support and shared interest is so important to getting to this level.
Pigot: Yes, in addition to being a lifelong fan, my dad used to race Formula Ford’s when he was younger around England and in the U.S. He was also involved in IndyCar racing, selling advertisements for the annual AutoCourse IndyCar Yearbook that was published back in the CART days.
Do you have childhood memories of the Indy 500?
Newgarden: The first time I attended the Indy 500, I was 16 and racing karts in Indianapolis. I loved learning about the tradition of the 500, what it takes to win the race, how much preparation is required. Everything about competing there. I was living in Nashville and we were commuting to Indianapolis for kart races nearly every weekend. The city really became a second home.
Pigot: We used to watch racing every weekend when I was a kid. Indycar, Formula One, motocross, etc. I remember every Memorial Day weekend we would watch the 500. The first time I went to the race was in 2011 and it was one of the most memorable 500’s ever. Dan Wheldon, who was one of our favorite drivers, as my dad is also English, won after he passed the leader who had crashed in the last corner of the final lap a few hundred feet before the finish line.
As a driver, what does it mean to participate in the race?
Newgarden: For me, it’s a huge achievement and also just an honor to be with an organization competing in that event. Being a part of a team that’s competing that month is just such an incredible experience. I’m lucky to have one of the best seats in the house. But you realize quickly how fortunate you are to be a part of the event.
Pigot: It means that my dream that I have had since I was a kid – of competing in the race – has come true. Each year I try my best to embrace everything about the event; the fans, the parade, Carb Day, etc. There are so many festivities surrounding the race. It makes it feel like such a massive and important event. I’m very proud to race in the Indy 500 because it means all the hard work and sacrifices that we made as a family, over many years, have finally paid off.
Can you describe the importance of the Indy 500 to IndyCar racing?
Newgarden: The Indianapolis 500 is a crucial part of IndyCar racing. It’s the world’s largest sporting event and has been running for over 100 years. How many sports can say that? That 100 years of history at Indy is really the DNA of IndyCar racing… We all love traveling and competing at all the circuits around the world, but ultimately everyone always has their eye on the Brickyard in May.
Pigot: The Indy 500 is vital to IndyCar racing. It’s by far our biggest event and the race that everyone wants to win. Drivers would take an Indy 500 win over an IndyCar championship because of the prestige the race has. It’s the largest sporting event on the planet in terms of attendance on race day so it’s extremely important to our series.
What is your favorite thing about the Indy 500?
Newgarden: My favorite tradition has to be the ceremonies…the lead up to the start, the anthem, Back Home Again in Indiana… that’s where you really feel the passion and the history of the event come to life.
Pigot: My favorite part is for sure the race. It’s the day that everyone is looking forward to and all the events build up to. Driver introduction in front of 400,000 people is when you really know that you’re about to be in the biggest race in the world.