ST. PETERSBURG — It took only eight years for Josef Newgarden to climb from a go-cart rookie to an IndyCar series driver — a rise faster than even the 21-year-old Tennessee native envisioned.
"It's unbelievable," Newgarden said Thursday at a media luncheon to kick off the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg festivities. "I didn't expect this was going to ever happen."
Especially so quickly.
Newgarden's racing career began in go-carts at age 13, a late start for a competitive driver. By 16, he was skilled enough to make the jump to open-wheel cars, even if he didn't know if he was mentally prepared.
"It just seemed scary," Newgarden said.
He leapt through the ranks, from a runnerup finish in the Skip Barber National Championship in 2007 to becoming the first American to win the International Formula Ford Festival in 2008.
As his victories piled up, his confidence increased. With some luck and helpful mentors and connections, Newgarden grew from wondering if he could make racing a career to knowing he could compete at elite levels.
"When I started doing well and started realizing that I can drive, you've got the talent to do it, I think that's when my work ethic almost started ramping up," Newgarden said. "I have confidence in myself. Now I can just start increasing the workload."
And as he worked harder, his results became even better.
In his debut last year in Indy Lights, the top feeder series for IndyCar, he led 34 of 45 laps to win the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He won his first oval race — at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and took three more checkered flags on his way to rookie of the year honors and the series championship.
Newgarden will make his IndyCar debut Sunday in the cockpit of the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda.
"For the younger drivers like me … it makes you believe that we can make it," said Indy Lights driver Victor Carbone, who raced with Newgarden last year at Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Five years ago, Newgarden wasn't even sure if he could make it himself.
Now, with one victory at St. Petersburg and a series championship to his name, he's bursting with confidence and ready to make a top-10 charge in his latest series debut.
"You have to have that belief," Newgarden said. "I think that's the position I'm in now."
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.