Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Newgarden Already Finding Groove with New Race Engineer Leichtle

Josef Newgarden stands on top of the timing stand at Texas Motor Speedway.
Josef Newgarden has taken on a leadership role by default to help lessen the inexperience within the team. Image by Joe Skibinski / Penske Entertainment

It only took until the second race of the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season for Josef Newgarden to find Victory Lane.

While that is the expectation in normal circumstances, the 31-year-old Tennessee native endured an off-season that saw turnover within the team, including the arrival of new race engineer Eric Leichtle.

Leichtle replaced Gavin Ward, who departed for Arrow McLaren SP after and helped steer Newgarden to his second championship in 2019.

Although the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg delivered an underwhelming 16th-place finish, the group was able to rebound with a last-lap pass to win last weekend’s XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I don’t think you can discount the tall order that Eric has in front of him,” Newgarden said. “I mean, he’s a very smart individual, really great person, good personality, total team player. Eric has never engineered a car like this. Not even anything close to this. He hasn’t been in an engineering position like this in, I don’t know, eight years. That position was very, very different than the position he’s in now.”

Leichtle came over after working as an IndyCar program manager over the past decade with Pratt & Miller Engineering, a firm that supports Chevrolet’s race engineering and special projects for its IndyCar endeavors. To help with the transition along, he’s been able to work closely with veterans Ben Bretzman, race engineer for Scott McLaughlin, and Dave Faustino, race engineer for Will Power.

“He’s had a lot to learn, a lot,” Newgarden said. “He is just trying to soak up information from everybody. He’s been leaning on Dave, Ben, all the other engineers. They have done a great job of trying to inject as much knowledge into Eric as quickly as possible.

“You can’t force this stuff. You can give Eric a binder with every piece of information he would ever need, he could read the thing three times over before the season starts. Until he does it, he’s never really going to understand it, he’s not going to get good at that instinctual ability he has to have.

“He has a super tall order in front of him. He’s staying positive. A day like (last Sunday) is very validating for a person like Eric. I’m really happy for him. I’m happy for our group. It’s only one race, let’s not get too excited, but this is a good boost for everybody. Eric is doing a tremendous job of being a team player for all of us.”

Eric Leichtle atop the timing stand at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Eric Leichtle (above) left Texas as a race-winning engineer after just two races in the NTT IndyCar Series. Image courtesy of Joe Skibinski / Penske Entertainment

For his part, Newgarden sees the victory as a confidence builder for the lesser experienced portion of the team working on the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It’s big,” he admitted. “We’ve got a lot of people on that car that are just learning. I should temper that. We have people that have experience, too, that are bringing a lot to the table and trying to rally this new crew that we’re working together with.

“There’s a chemistry that you just have to build. Unfortunately, I think for some of the people on the team that are new, less experienced in their roles, you can’t accelerate experience, you just can’t. You can try and talk about it. You can try and spend a lot of time, to develop it away from the track. You can’t replace going to the track and doing the job. The experience is what matters. You have to go through these times together.

“Getting a win so early is just going to help the overall morale. It’s going to help the confidence of everyone on the team.

“St. Pete was so incredibly disappointing to me. We had a great test going into it. I felt fantastic heading into the weekend. A lot of hurdles that weekend on the track. It wasn’t a good weekend.

“I tell everybody, ‘These things happen. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s okay. We’re going to see this at times, so let’s just stay on our plan, keep moving forward, it will eventually get there.’

“Some of these times, even if you don’t feel confident in the way things are going to come together, you have to stay positive because you’re in the situation together. You’re kind of with a brotherhood there almost. You have each other’s backs. You have to lift each other up. I’ve been trying to do that from my side. But it takes everybody. It’s not just me that is going to make the difference. You have to make everyone believe that. When they all do it, that’s what really accelerates the program.”

Additionally, it puts Newgarden front and center as the de facto leader.

“I don’t like saying that I am,” he said. “It’s inevitable, right? This is my 11th year in IndyCar. Of course I’m in more of a senior position, I would say, from an experience, observative standpoint. I’ve seen a lot more than some of these people on the team.

“Doesn’t matter that I don’t have an engineering degree, but I’ve been in the trenches working on this stuff with other people and knowing where we’ve been, how we got to where we have gotten to in 2021 or 2022.

“That inherently gives you more of a senior leadership role, I would say. But I don’t think we try and operate that way. Everyone is a leader in the team. You got to get buy-in from everybody. Can’t be just one person holding the torch. We all have to believe that and pick each other up.

“That’s more of the discussions we’ve had in the off-season, is getting everyone to buy into the program. A team effort. When you have the whole group feeling that way, that’s when magic happens.”



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