NASHVILLE, Tennessee—Josef Newgarden was of course in the spotlight on Thursday eveningwho hosted his charity table tennis tournament on the eve of the Music City Grand Prix.
Newgarden (who lives full-time in Nashville with his wife Ashley and newborn son Kota) hopped between interviews with national and local media, snuggled puppies and deftly flicked a paddle for nearly two hours, and was the most hosted in his hometown.
The fourth annual Celebrity Ping Pong Challenge (held in Nashville for the second year running) raised more than $65,000 for charities Serious Fun Children’s Network and Wags and Walks (hence the pups) and drew more than a dozen IndyCar Driver to Pins Mechanical in downtown Nashville.
It appeared to be the opening salvo of a weekend welcome party for the NTT IndyCar series’ return to its Tennessee turf.
But it was actually Newgarden who pulled down the curtain on his schedule of performances for the weekend.
For the next three days, the two-time series champion said he will focus entirely on the track.
“One hundred percent; I’ve shut everything else down,” Newgarden said Thursday. “This event was a priority. I really wanted to raise some money for these great organizations, but other than that I just want to run. So, what else we don’t have to do , let’s leave it. I was just trying to give myself a slightly better opportunity.”
It’s a lesson he learned from last season when he ragged during IndyCar’s first visit to Nashville. For four days, Newgarden took on the role of Main Ambassador for the inaugural Music City Grand Prix. While fulfilling every appearance and interview request, he was also accompanied by a documentary crew who produced a 22 minute episode of “Off the Grid”. over the star-crossed weekend.
Newgarden crashed his #2 Dallara Chevrolet at Turn 11 during qualifying and finished 10thth from the 12thth.
His later viewing of the documentary was revealing.
“I thought it was funny; you could feel the intensity on me that weekend, a lot of frustration,” Newgarden told NBC Sports during a preseason interview stretched out. I really thought I would be better at prioritizing the racing side of the weekend. I knew how important that was going to be and how much I was going to be pulled in all directions. I think that blew me away. … My Focus was just pulled too far away from the trackside and when I got to the track and saw the footage you could see a lot of frustration from me.
“I wanted to hide more than anything this weekend. It was really difficult to be on everyone’s lips, but that’s part of racing. In these moments you have to unfold. I think it was a learning moment for me. I’ve learned how to deal with it and where to set limits.”
There was no limit to improvement at Nashville, which Newgarden said was one of his weakest tracks of 2021.
His team brought a radically new setup that showed promise with the fifth fastest speed in practice on Friday.
“We brought something productive,” he said. “We have to work on it. I have great confidence that we can do it here with this group, have a good weekend and not let that become a disadvantage in the last four (races of the season). I think we can have a great weekend here as a whole team.”
Newgarden is 32 points behind teammate Will Power with four races remaining after finishing fifth on July 30 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway street course. He had been cleared for the race just two days before after being hospitalized for a fall at the Iowa Speedwaywhere he crashed off the lead while trying to complete a weekend sweep.
“I felt really good; I felt pretty normal,” Newgarden said. “I would probably say I wasn’t 100%, but I felt good. I felt normal in many ways, but I tried to be even better. A top five was really strong for us. We had to be in the race. I was happy to be there. I think we had more potential than fifth, but we still have four races to go. Enough time to do enough.”
Starting with what he hopes is a clean – and quiet – home weekend.
“I’m trying not to push it harder than any other race,” said Newgarden. “Every event we go to is a lot of pressure. We want to perform. It doesn’t matter what breed it is. Coming from Nashville and having this event here is definitely something special.
“We want people to come to Nashville and think of this as an event, a Super Bowl-type event. So there’s a lot of pressure for that. I do it like any other race, any other day. focus on my work I think if you do that you’ll have a better opportunity to just race what you would normally race and possibly win it.