IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden wasn't sure what to expect for last year's inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix weekend.
The race took place on a brand new temporary street track in a city that had never hosted an open-wheel racing event of this magnitude.
He came away impressed.
Newgarden, 21, took to the track, finishing second in the Indy Lights race held prior to the Grand Prix. Baltimore took to open wheel racing, with the weekend crowd estimated at 150,000.
After a few planned track tweaks and Michael Andretti serving as the weekend's new organizer, IndyCar's Baltimore Grand Prix will return for Labor Day weekend.
Newgarden will pilot the No. 67 entry owned by popular former driver Sarah Fisher. He is second in IndyCar's Rookie of the Year standings.
Newgarden, a Tennessee native, visited Baltimore Monday to help promote the race and announce that construction on this year's track had begun. He shared with the Times his thoughts on the Baltimore track, how he got a coveted spot in IndyCar and who his favorite drivers were growing up.
Q: What kind of response did you guys get from the City of Baltimore?
A: The response from the locals was perfect. I enjoyed the track, I thought the layout was cool. I thought the whole street festival feel to it was great.
Q: What were your first impressions of the track itself?
A: My first impression was that it almost looked like two tracks because half of it was super bumpy and it wasn't paved; it was concrete. Some of it was torn up, some of it was bumpy. It was rigid and you had elevation changes on the front straight. But then the other half of the track was really smooth. ... That made it really difficult to drive and set up the car. I thought it was a great challenge for all the teams and drivers.
Q: How will the elimination of the front stretch chicane and the widening of turn 1 change the racing?
A: Well, hopefully, it is going to make it easier to pass and promote more racing, which is the whole goal of that. The whole idea is trying to promote more racing down the front straight. The same thing with widening of turn 1. It should provide more room for racing.
Q: After being away racing in Europe for a few years, how have you taken to the tracks on IndyCar's schedule?
A: Going to a new track is actually one of my favorite things to do. To experience a track for a first time and just try to master it and get on top of it faster than other people presents its own challenge. If you are good at learning really fast and pick things up faster than everyone else, it presents an opportunity.
Q: For awhile there, you had your sights set on being a Formula 1 driver. What got you back in the United States?
A: I think it was a great opportunity to run with [Sam Schmidt Motorsports], one of the great open-wheel teams in America. It was the right decision to make for sure. It was a good career choice. I don't think [Europe] is gone forever. I think going back to Europe is definitely a possibility, but right now I think being in IndyCar is a great move for me.
Q: Do the IndyCar fans tend to rally behind you because you are an American driver in a sport with drivers from all over the world?
A: It doesn't hurt. It's only a positive. Then again, our fans love the international drivers, Helio [Castroneves] and [Tony Kanaan]. This is the best in the best. You want to be in a series where you have drivers from all over the world.
Q: With sponsorship hard to come by in all racing series, it seems as though it is tough for anyone young to break in with a full-time ride. Is it harder than ever to do that?
A: It's difficult. It's really tough. It's kind of a package deal now. You have to be business savvy and be a great driver as well.
Q: Who were the drivers you admired growing up?
A: I loved open wheel racing. [Fernando Alonso] when he was younger coming up [in Formula 1] with Renault and battling [Michael] Schumacher in those days was just really impressive to me. I just had a lot of respect for him for the driver he was. On the IndyCar side, I think there were a lot of really great drivers who were role models as well. I think [Dan] Wheldon was one of the best. It was easy to point him out because he just so good.
Q: In last year's finale at California, Wheldon's death cast a pall over open-wheel racing. Was it difficult for the series to move on after his fatal on-track accident?
A: You never forget, but, for sure, you need to move forward. He's always going to be remembered by those who knew him and by the people who try and spread his message still, emulate the way he was and embody everything he stood for. I think you see that in the drivers now. I think he had a positive impact on the whole field, really.