The “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” never ceases to amaze us all. Yet, this one was perhaps the most thrilling, chilling, and fulfilling in a generation. For the Nashville and Hendersonville communities, the payoff will not soon be forgotten. Pope John II High School alum Josef Newgarden exorcized his Indy 500 demons that had swarmed him for over a decade and for one day eclipsed Taylor Swift as Hendersonville’s hometown hero.
After starting in the middle of the pack at the 17th spot, the two-time IndyCar Series Champion found himself in an adverse position as he looked to navigate his way to a long-awaited Indy 500 victory. The pace was fast, nearing record speeds. However, the 32-year-old Newgarden remained poised all afternoon as he progressed to the front of the field. By lap 100, it was clear - Tennessee’s own was going to be a contender this year. Once securing his first lead at lap 157 of 200, everything changed.
Josef Newgarden has been revered as the “good guy” of auto racing, as well as being an esteemed winner. NBC commentators were quick to point out, “The Tennessee native has done everything but finish first in the Indy 500.” The well-informed crowd erupted when he moved to the lead, but then the calm turned to calamity. Folks like myself that have frequented the most famous auto race in the world understand that turn two is a death trap. We have witnessed near death collisions and disasters. This rendition finally caught up to drivers with about 40 laps to go and the yellow flags came out one after another.
Routine, right? Well, the entertainment nearly turned into devastation when Felix Rosenqvist lost control making a gutsy maneuver and clipped Kyle Kirkwood, sending a loose tire into the grandstands, coming within mere feet of killing multiple spectators. Luckily, the boggy flew wide into a nearby parking lot, crushing a windshield but no one was injured.
Shock and horror could be seen on fans' faces as they, and drivers alike, had to gather themselves. Red flag number one - and we were just getting started with 15 laps to go. Newgarden remained calm and collected despite the literal obstacles and was in contention throughout. Meanwhile, hotshot youngster Pato O’Ward jumped in front but became the next casualty as he slammed into the wall near turn three. Red flag number two - six laps to go.
On what was believed to be the final restart, Newgarden was in first position but quickly relinquished the lead to reigning champion Marcus Ericsson. Immediately behind them a massive pile up occurred and all hope seemed lost for our hometown kid as the yellow flag came out. With only five laps remaining, conventional wisdom told us the race would finish under yellow and Ericsson would go back-to-back… but then it happened! Red flag number three - two laps to go. After a long delay to clean up the carnage on the home stretch; the chase for the checkered flag was on!
Many will not agree with IndyCar’s decision to go green flag, white flag simultaneously but that was the reality. Both Ericsson and Newgarden survived turn two, but as turn three neared Ericsson began to fade. Newgarden shifted and like that was gone from the pack. His wife, Ashley could then be seen breaking down. Shaking with tears of joy, she captured the emotion and euphoria of the moment many thought may never come.
Josef Newgarden leaped from his car and submarined the fence to celebrate with the crowd. He is not just “a” man of the people. He is “the” man of the people. The milk flowed in the winner’s circle and was capped off by the traditional kiss of the brick-laden finish line. Our boy is the 2023 Indy 500 Champion, and no one can ever take that from him.