When newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden was plying his considerable talent as the lead driver at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), Dwight native Joe Howard — the team's senior damper engineer — wasn't shy about extolling the virtues of his budding superstar teammate.
"He's everything a car owner is looking for in a driver," Howard said, in the midst of Newgarden enjoying a pair of breakout seasons with ECR in 2015 and ’16.
Fast forward to now, Newgarden was certainly everything that the most accomplished car owner in motor sports history was looking for this year.
After leaving ECR and moving to the powerful Penske organization, Newgarden's title run came as no surprise to Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue engineering grad who has 14 years under his belt as an IndyCar engineer.
"I can't say I'm surprised at all," Howard said this week in a phone conversation with The Pantagraph. "He's just really that good. He definitely showed his abilities when he was with us. He's very driven, he's very focused, he's very intelligent."
Newgarden, 26, continued to showcase that ability at Penske, where he had to not only fit in with three championship caliber teammates, but contend with them for the crown. One was the reigning series champ, another a recent titlist and the third a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
He also had to outrun veteran Scott Dixon, one of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history and a member of the rival and equally stout Ganassi organization.
Then there's the matter of beating the Andretti guys, never an easy task. That's all before having to outdistance the remainder of an enormously competitive field that saw half of the full-time drivers in the series win at least one race this year, a percentage pretty much unrivaled in all of racing.
Howard knew all along Newgarden possessed the components needed to meet the challenge.
"Natural God-given talent is a factor, of course, and Josef utilizes that talent with every ounce of his being," Howard said. "I believe that a lot of it comes down to work ethic. What you get out of something is equivalent to what you put into it and Josef is constantly honing his craft to a degree that maybe not a lot of guys do.
"When he walks away from the car at the end of the day, that's not the end of it. He's constantly studying and learning where he needs to be better and where he might gain an advantage."
A big part of a driver's success is knowing how the car works and figuring out what he can do from his end to make it work even better. Indy cars — 230-mile-per-hour, 1,400-pound missiles — are extremely complex and Howard said Newgarden had an insatiable appetite to continually grow in his knowledge.
"In my part of the business, he really wanted to know the intricacies of the damper program and how and why we do things the way we do at ECR," Howard said.
While closely working together, Howard and Newgarden also found they shared a sense of humor.
"That was a very gratifying part about working with him," Howard said. "He was a fun guy to be around and that's important.
"This is an extremely high pressure business and you can walk around with a lot of weight on your shoulders. You need to have some fun and while he was very focused and dedicated, he was also a guy you just enjoyed being around."
Newgarden won three races in his two years at ECR, one on a road course (Barber), one on an oval (Iowa) and one on a street course (Toronto). He started in the middle of the front row and came close to winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 before finishing third. The team also was firmly ensconced in the 2016 title chase, ending the year in fourth.
J.R. Hildebrand moved into the No. 21 Fuzzy's Vodka car in a one-year deal this year.
Moving forward, young Spencer Pigot will transfer into the ECR lead car in 2018 after serving as a part-timer for the team on the road and street courses this past season, which ended Sunday at Sonoma, Calif.
Pigot, a Florida native, is a two-time karting national champion and is the all-time winningest driver in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, winning four championships and 24 races in just five years.
Howard, who also has worked with IndyCar champs Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, sees enormous potential in Pigot, who will turn 24 on Sept. 29.
"We're trying to figure out how to get him qualified a little bit better, that's a priority," Howard said. "He was very good in race conditions and, at times, showed some signs of brilliance. He's a young guy and the ability is there in a very competitive series."