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IndyCar Indy 500

Revealed: Three key speed secrets of Newgarden's Indy 500 win

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden won the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 with a thrilling last-lap pass. The man who helped make it happen explains how the two-time IndyCar champion finally secured his hitherto elusive Indy victory

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

After three red flags, Newgarden decisively passed Marcus Ericsson in the one-lap shootout that decided Sunday's showpiece. A robust defence exiting Turn 4 ensured he held off Chip Ganassi Racing's defending winner to secure his first and team owner Roger Penske's 19th Indy 500 victory.

Analysis: How Newgarden rose to be a thorn to Ericsson’s double Indy 500 bid 

Remarkably this was just the sixth race in the role for Newgarden's Australian race engineer Luke Mason, who joined Team Penske at the start of 2022 as a performance engineer. Elevated to Newgarden’s race engineer this year, it took just two races for the combination to earn their first victory together at Texas. Now Mason has won the biggest prize in American open-wheel racing at his first attempt with the 2017 and 2019 champion.

In an exclusive interview with Autosport, Mason describes the critical decisions taken ahead of the start. Decisions that helped his driver take control of the race from 17th on the grid and add his face to the Borg Warner Trophy, all while snaring $3.6 million in prize money.

Running low downforce helped make the most of in- and out-laps, while also making for a raceable car when it counted

Running low downforce helped make the most of in- and out-laps, while also making for a raceable car when it counted

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

1. They chose a low downforce route

The big question coming into the Indy 500 for any driver and engineer combination is how to play the downforce level versus trimming the car out for straightline speed. This year, it was complicated by IndyCar allowing extra aero options that added up to a potential increase of 10% in downforce, all of which comes at the cost of drag.

Add to that the knowledge that if you got up front on the final lap, you would be prone to being passed…

“You have to be very careful about what you run,” says Mason. “You’d think that starting down the back would mean you’d have to run a fair bit of downforce to be able to follow cars and be able to get through the pack, but at the same time if you overdo it there, once you get to the front you’re a sitting duck and you can’t do anything.

“So, you really have to make a decision on where you think you’re going to be at the end of the race. For us, I think if you went through the whole field and did a bit of a survey, that car was probably one of the lightest on downforce in the whole field.

“We knew that we probably qualified out of position but at the same time it makes life easy when you have got the best pit crew and the people we have got over the wall for us. The game plan was, we didn’t need to pass many cars on track. All we had to do was get two or three every pit cycle and make the most of in and out laps and eventually we were going to find ourselves in the top five.

“Once you’re up with those guys, then being trimmed and running less downforce puts you in a position to do what we did, and when you get out in front you can stay there.”

Newgarden returned to a set-up he'd previously run on Carb Day after realising the car had progressively become less effective

Newgarden returned to a set-up he'd previously run on Carb Day after realising the car had progressively become less effective

Photo by: IndyCar Series

2. They circled back to an old set-up

While two weeks of practice sounds like engineering nirvana, Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be a brainbuster when it comes to car set-up. Different ambient and track temperatures can have a huge impact on performance, and some blustery wind days added to the potential for confusion.

Mason reveals the #2 crew chased its tail throughout the practice days, and really struggled for speed in qualifying, but then realised the answer was at its fingertips all along…

“All the hard work for Indy really is done in the off-season with the R&D that happens before you even put the car on the track,” he explains. “That’s where all the speed is, that’s where we’re aero testing and doing driveline work and everything else.

“You’re doing all this planning that all happens so early, so once you actually put the car on track in practice, that’s the easy bit for us really. All you’re trying to do is build momentum through those two weeks that you’ve got, so you try different things on the car and not everything works and then you reset and go back and you learn something else and gradually you make the thing better and better.

“Obviously qualifying didn’t quite go to plan unfortunately, which makes it a lot harder. That’s not quite how we drew it up, we would have liked to start up the front and make our life a little bit easier there.

“But at the same time, going all the way back to the open test when we first rolled out the car in race config and race set-up, that thing was a jet. Josef did 10 laps and pitted and goes, ‘this thing is a rocket, let’s build from this and let’s go’.

“So, to be honest, we went around in circles a bit with the race car. We got to Carb Day and we sat down and had a bit of chat and I came to the realisation that all I had done over the past two weeks was make the car worse. So we just bolted on that car we ran at the very first test, all the set-up settings there, and rolled with it on Carb Day. It was back and he was super happy, super confident.”

Newgarden didn't hesitate when his chance came at the end of the race, where Mason admits to being very nervous

Newgarden didn't hesitate when his chance came at the end of the race, where Mason admits to being very nervous

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

3. Newgarden executed perfectly when it mattered

Newgarden only led five laps of the race – the only winning drivers in history to lead fewer were Joe Dawson in 1912 (two) and Dan Wheldon in 2011, who only took the lead at the final corner when JR Hildebrand famously crashed. It’s only the second time someone won from 17th on the grid: Eddie Cheever in 1998 and Floyd Davis/Mauri Rose in 1941 (Davis was fired from his drive in the middle of the race, and Rose was subbed in).

Newgarden had lost the lead by the tiniest of margins before the final red flag to Marcus Ericsson, but that loss of track position turned out to be a blessing in disguise…

“There were sort of three shots at it, right?” says Mason. “We kind of thought that once the first one had happened, the precedent was going to be set that if there was going to be an opportunity to restart the race, whether it be a one-lap, two-lap, three-lap shootout, whatever it was, they were going to do their best as IndyCar to make sure the race finished under greens.

OPINION: Why Indy 500 'fix' finish accusations are wide of the mark

“In our mind, it was always going to be red flags because that’s what they have done the previous two times. So we always thought we were going to get another opportunity at it. I think we just ended up being very fortunate that we started up front for the final restart… and then being second was actually the best spot to be in for that last lap funnily enough. We just got lucky there and he made the most of it.

“He’s so focused as an individual when he’s in the car that I don’t think he would have been nervous at all. He’s trying to work out where he wants to put the car, what move he is going to do, where he’s going to do it and then once he’s got the lead how he’s going to keep it.

“So, I don’t think he would have been nervous at all. I think me and Ashley, his wife, and everyone else on the stand were probably nervous wrecks trying to figure out what was going to happen and hoping that we were going to come out on top. So I think definitely we on the stand were more nervous than what he was.”

Newgarden dived through a gap in the fence to celebrate among the fans after his long-awaited Indy victory

Newgarden dived through a gap in the fence to celebrate among the fans after his long-awaited Indy victory

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Mason says he’s still struggling to come to terms with the achievement, as Penske secured its first Indy win since 2019 - prior to the introduction of the aeroscreen.

“It’s a pretty surreal moment when you’re standing there and that thing crosses the line,” he says. “I sort of blacked out for the next 15 minutes and my voice was gone, you’re with all your crew guys jumping around and then you climb the fence and all the rest of it, all the celebrations.

“Finally, once you get through that you have that little moment to yourself: ‘shit, we actually did something pretty special and pretty cool that not many people get to do’. It’s still very surreal to be honest. I still haven’t quite been able to process it.”

And the final word has to go to Newgarden himself…

“Luke did an amazing job,” he says. “We basically just went back to our car from the April test, where it was so good. We had never run that car again in May, and we were both looking at each other laughing, like ‘what are we doing?’

“We left that test and said, ‘If we have this car, we're winning the 500.’ That's what I said.”

And that’s what he did.

Newgarden gave Roger Penske his 19th Indy victory as a team owner

Newgarden gave Roger Penske his 19th Indy victory as a team owner

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

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