The Steal Of The Offseason

Apparently, I live under a rock (or out of the loop). One of the perks of being an IndyCar blogger is that we get most of the press-releases from the series and/or the various teams. When I got the release about Sarah Fisher Racing having a driver announcement for this past Wednesday, it hinted that most probably already knew who it involved. I hate to admit it, but I had no clue. Knowing that our friend Pressdog had some previous ties to Sarah Fisher, I e-mailed him to see what he knew. He politely informed me that he thought it might be Josef Newgarden. As we all now know, Pressdog was correct.

I was wondering if this was a by-product of Newman/Haas closing their doors last week. Prior to that, most rumors had Newgarden headed to the empty GoDaddy car at Andretti Autosport. That ride now seems destined to be filled by one of the casualties at Newman/Haas – James Hinchcliffe. But to hear Sarah Fisher talk, this had been in the works for a while.

Whatever the case, Sarah Fisher ended up with the steal of the offseason. Plain and simple, Josef Newgarden will be a star in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He has that rare and sought-after combination of driving talent along with star-power and marketability. When I sat down with him for over an hour this past summer, I came away with the feeling that I had been talking with a thirty-five year-old veteran – not someone two years younger than my own son that had never turned a wheel in an IndyCar.

Sarah had another announcement about her own team other than pulling off the coup of the offseason – longtime supporter Wink Hartman is now a partner at Sarah Fisher Racing, prompting a name change to Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR). I might have come up with something different because those that don’t know that her husband is Andy O’Gara, might think that Hartman is now her married name, but I digress.

Wink Hartman is head of Hartman Oil Company. He is the one that came to her rescue in 2008 during the ResQ sponsorship debacle leading up to the Indianapolis 500. Hartman provided the funding that allowed her to finish out the trying month of May. He is also the source of the new and lighter Dallara chassis that was presented as a surprise to Sarah, to provide the team with an adequate back-up car. He has been involved with the team and decided to step up his financial involvement and become a partner.

With Newgarden coming on board along with Hartman, the game has changed at SFHR. Although they were the last team to win an IndyCar race, the road ahead looked tough for the small team. They had lost their sponsor and their driver within about a month of each other and questions were swirling. A lot of those questions were put to rest on Wednesday, but a new set arose.

Josef Newgarden is coming off a championship in Firestone Indy Lights where his enormous talent was on display. Although he is a rookie, in my mind he carries more clout than some of the more recent Indy Lights champions. He will not be content for on-the-job training as a backmarker, week after week. I talked to him enough to tell that his mindset is to win now, not later.

In all honesty, I was a little surprised that Sarah Fisher was able to sign Newgarden. He was under contract with Sam Schmidt and rumored to be headed there or else with Andretti Autosport. Although Sam Schmidt Motorsports hasn’t won a race at the top level, they did win the pole at Indianapolis this past season. Andretti Autosport has two Indianapolis 500 wins under their belt along with two championships.

To go from being mentioned as a possibility at AA to signing with a fledgling team that just won its first race two months ago is sort of a shock. Either some dominos fell at other teams that filled some empty seats or Sarah Fisher, Andy O’Gara and Wink Hartman were able to convince Newgarden that they had seriously raised expectations at SFHR. That may have been the case, since they signed Newgarden to a three-year deal. Their oval program, in the old Dallara at least, is in good shape. It’s their non-oval package that I worry about. It hasn’t really been where it needs to be since the team’s inception. That’s what is going to have to happen to keep Newgarden happy.

But I’m happy for both of them. I’ve been a fan of Sarah Fisher for years, dating back to when she first came onto the scene as a nineteen year-old driving for Derrick Walker. When she formed her own team, the odds of succeeding for even a couple of years were slim. Now she is retired from driving, a new mom and heading into her fifth season as an owner. Along the way, she never lost her warm personality or her strong desire to succeed. Regardless of who is running the team – husband Andy, father-in-law Johnny O’Gara, Wink Hartman or Sarah herself – Sarah is the face of the team and the reason we want them to succeed.

Now we have a new reason to cheer for Sarah Fisher – Josef Newgarden, who was born in Nashville and is about as All-American as they come. Mark the date of Dec 9, 2011 as the day that I guarantee that this guy will become a megastar in the IZOD IndyCar Series. It may or may not happen at SFHR, but it will happen. The only thing preventing it is either injury or his moving to Formula One or (God forbid) NASCAR.

As Sarah correctly pointed out on Wednesday, it may be a big plus that Josef Newgarden has never driven the 2003-11 Dallara. He’ll have nothing to compare the new car to when they begin to test it. The new car is only the first of many challenges facing SFHR in the coming months. They have yet to announce a sponsor, whether they will be full-time or part-time or even an engine deal for 2012. Something tells me that a sponsor and an engine may already be in place, but they’re still working on funding to go full-time next season.

But now that they’ve got Josef Newgarden in the cockpit, this is definitely a team to watch in 2012. All parties have done everything the right way. They will be very easy to cheer for.

George Phillips

16 Responses to “The Steal Of The Offseason”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Nice post George… SFHR: a small, bright ray of light (that is not a train traveling in the opposite direction) at the other end of what has been of late, a darkened Izod Indy Car tunnel…

  2. We are going to learn a lot about both Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012. Some might say that Newgrarden has been thrown off the deep end but I’m not so sure. SFHR, despite some bad runs in 2011, has proven that they have the ability to set up an oval car. If he has the chassis set up and development acumen that it seems he has, he can raise SFHR’s game on the street and road courses. I don’t expect to see them where Newman Haas was in 2011 as best in class behind Ganassi and Penske but I don’t expect them to be at the bottom of the grid either.

    As to the poll question… Will he win rookie of the year? I’ll have to wait to see who the other candidates are where they land. Will he win a race? I wouldn’t expect him to. The realistic answer is probably a combination of the first two, there will be struggles but due to a combination of rookie driver and a team trying to develop on road and street courses. If there were more ovals on the schedule I would expect better results but the road/street course heavy schedule doesn’t work to SFHR’s current strengths. Overall, though I’ve got a positive outlook for the combination.

  3. Very nice and thoughtful article. I really like your subtle dig at the yutz you wrote about a fed weeks ago!

    I think the one thing that gets lost in the shuffle is that this year *is* a new car, new engine, and all new handling characteristics. Everyone will be a “rookie” with the new car. I think that will be a great leveler.

  4. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    Good stuff George, but I hope you don’t mind if my comment is a little bit of a downer.

    Newgarden does have talent. He is quick – of that there is no doubt – but honestly, it is too hard to judge where his Lights Championship fits in because this year’s field was truly dire.
    Beyond Newgarden, Daly and Guerrieri, there was painfully little in the Lights talent pool. So much so, I would have been disappointed had he not won.

    This isn’t to take away from Josef’s achievement, but I do believe he won the series against one of the weakest Lights fields I have ever seen.

    As to how he adapts in 2012, I can only say “we will see.” I wish him luck.

  5. This will be a learning year for a lot of folks. New car, new engine, ect…I do know that nobody works harder than Sarah Fisher and I look forwrd to seeing SFHR grow and become a front runner in the years ahead. Smart move and I look for a long and storied association.

  6. My concern for Josef is the team having the engineering chops to get the new chassis/engine pkg figured out as quickly as everyone else. With the cars, set-up engineers still seem to be the most important non-driving personnel on the team with regard to on-track success. In the case of the previous chassis, I’d argue even a bit more than the driver.

    Looking like a bit of a crapshoot for most all teams until after Indianapolis, then the season championship will be up for grabs. Should be interesting.

  7. Brian from NY Says:

    I have to disagree with you a little bit on this one George. Josef seems like a nice young man and he does have some talent, but I think he has been overhyped just because he is an American. He won Indy Lights against a weak field at best while being on the best team in that series. His 18th place finish in GP 3 could be more accurate of his ability. I’m not saying he wouldn’t develop into an adequate driver, but I think people want him to do well so bad that they are expecting way too much from this young man.
    I think Sara would have been better served by getting an veteran driver that has experience setting up a car. My fear is that Josef is going to struggle big time next year without a veteran team mate or a top engineer. It’s not that I don’t want him to do well, but I don’t see them being competitive at all next year. I think this was a question of Sara needing the money that Josef brings not that she thought he could win.
    The good news in this is that their are several very good young American drivers out there. The best by far is Alexander Rossi in GP2. If he doesn’t make it to F1 then I think he is by far the best young American driver out there. The other two guys that I think that could be the next stars of Indy Car (if they don’t make it to F1) is Conner Daley and Sage Karem.

  8. Sarah got one more win than a few other teams in the paddock this past year. I think she knows what she is doing.

  9. Leigh raised some of the points I was going to mention. I definately think Josef has the talent to take a good car and go fast with it. What I don’t know right now is if he can take a slow car and make it go faster.
    In lights last year he had the best car on the grid. History is beginning to show that in lights, anyone who wins a race or championship in a non Schmidt car might be valued over a driver who does the same in a Schmidt car.
    Josef struggled during his GP3 year, mired in the back with a number of DNF’s while fellow North Americans Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens won races and finished first and second (I believe) in the standings, Connor Daly stepped into Josef’s ride at Carlin in GP 3 this year and after a rough start similar to Josef’s entire season, began to make progress and move up the leaderboard and by the end of the season was contending to score points.
    I don’t want this comment to be a dump on Josef fest. He is a talent with great potential and there are steps he needs to take.
    Overall though – we tend to forget how young Marco and Graham are as they have been in the league for a while now. BUT Graham, Marco, JR, Hinch, Simona, Charlie and Josef Constitute an amazingly deep talent pool of young and marketing relevant drivers for the league to grow with in the future. By FAR these kids are the best thing IndyCar has going for it right now.
    And George, if that comment about Past Lights champions being content to run as backmarkers is in any way shape or form directed towards my boy JR, I am going to drive down the Nashville and Kick your a$$ in person, Good Day Sir.

  10. I think it’s a good thing for Sarah and Josef. And signing a promising, personable young American is good for Indycar.

  11. As long as SFR develop a decent car then Newgarden should be able to win rookie of the year unless some loser F1 reject comes in. Even then Newarden has an advantage on ovals, as long as there’s more than 4. So let’s hope SFR finds another sponsor and can continue to fund a decent team.

  12. billytheskink Says:

    Robo-Pong Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has a a nice ring to it. Not quite Tae-Bo Coors Light Delta Faucet Men’s Fitness Hemelgarn Racing…

    Seriously, though, I hope Newgarden does well.

  13. I think this goes to show how much money is needed for a GP2 ride. Newgarden probably never had a fair shot in Europe because of money. Fisher got herself a blue chip prospect, but I recall watching Graham Rahal in person at Long Beach bringing up the rear in one of her machines. Every race cant be KY. I hope this doesnt halt his meteoric rise.

  14. […] IndyCar Blogger on the planet; Hya! Geo. Phillips assessment of this being a bonafied STEAL! The Steal of the Offseason Meanwhile, in case Y’all haven’t noticed? SFR has added another letter from the Alphabet to […]

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