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Carpenter’s Done It All At Indy – Except For 1 Thing

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 24 2014

Ed Carpenter has gone from golf carts to Indycars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter’s first job inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was as golf-cart driver at The Brickyard Crossing, the championship-caliber course shoe-horned inside the mammoth facility at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.

“I washed the carts, parked them, charged them, cleaned clubs – whatever,” said Carpenter, recalling carefree summers at his family-owned facility more widely known as home to the Indianapolis 500.

“I don’t even know if I was getting paid,” said Carpenter, stepson of Anton “Tony” George of the Hulman-George family, owners/promoters/guardians of the Speedway since the end of World War II. “I think my parents just wanted me to be doing something; I was doing what I was told. It was fun, driving the ball-picker on the (driving) range, picking up all the balls as a young teen-ager. Fun job.

“But I was old enough that I knew I wanted to be racing out here. I mean, at that point I was racing Quarter Midgets and that’s serious, but you’re also a kid and you’re playing and having fun and screwing around at the track as much as you’re racing. It didn’t get more serious for me as a career until I was 16 or 17.”

Now 33, it won’t get any more serious for the native Hoosier than the Flying Start of Sunday’s 98th Indy 500. Carpenter will lead the 33-car field to the green flag from pole position for the second consecutive year. And after a disappointing 10th-place finish in 2013, Carpenter is determined to complete the circle.

“Yeah, any time you’re here with a car that you feel like is capable of winning and you feel like you have an opportunity, absolutely you want to find a way to close the deal,” said Carpenter, the only owner/driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series. “That’s why I’m here. Experience is a good thing. This is my 11th 500 and there’s things I’ve learned in all of them that make me better each and every year. There’s certainly things I think I learned last year that will help me come Sunday.”

Indy is Race No. 4 on the schedule but Carpenter’s first start since placing second in the 2013 season-ender at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Carpenter has reduced his driving schedule to

Ed Carpenter heads out of his pit stall on his pole-winning run.

the series’ six oval-track events, with Englishman Mike Conway handling the chores for the 12 street/road-course races. In other words, Carpenter has parked his ego in favor of the greater good.

“It was hard a little bit but the race team is something I want to be successful with long-term, and something I want to have long beyond when I’m done driving,” said Carpenter, a graduate of nearby Butler University with a degree in marketing. “Building the team and that business is a priority, and so when I look at it from that perspective it wasn’t that hard of a decision. And if the right situation came along and we had enough funding in the team and some more sponsors and could grow, I would consider expanding the schedule again. But it was the right decision for right now.”

A two-time series race-winner, Carpenter responded during last Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout by qualifying around the 2.5-mile oval with a four-lap/10-mile average of 231.067 mph in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka Dallara/Chevrolet. And Indy 500 teammate JR Hildebrand was impressive with a four-lap run at 228.726 mph in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer/ECR Dallara/Chevrolet that was good for ninth on the grid.

“I think the first pole was more satisfying, because it was kind of a milestone,” said Carpenter, whose 37 laps-led in last year’s Indy 500 were most of any driver. “Then we finished 10th in the race and it wasn’t so exciting for me, especially. I don’t think I’ve really allowed myself to get too excited about this one just because I know that it won’t mean much to me if I don’t come out of here with the result I’m happy with.”

Team-owner Carpenter saw a kindred spirit in Hildebrand, a guy who could use a break after crashing out

JR Hildebrand, who almost won the 500 in the past, is teaming with Ed Carpenter at Indy.

three laps into last year’s Indy 500 and subsequently losing his seat at Panther Racing. Recall that Hildebrand was poised to win the 2011 Indy 500 when a last-lap/Turn 4 crash opened the door for Dan Wheldon’s improbable second victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.“

“When JR crashes at this race last year, I didn’t necessarily think that was fair,” said Carpenter, referring to Hildebrand’s Panther pink slip. “I thought he had done a good job and deserved an opportunity. I kind of reached out to him as a fellow-driver and an owner saying, ‘Keep your head up, you’re a talented driver. You’re going to get another chance. And I’d like to be able to give you a chance at some point if the opportunity’s there.’

“I was a little worried about how he was going to take it when we hired Mike to do the road and street-courses, but he was a professional and he’s been great to work with this May. Hopefully we’ll be able to do more down the road.”

Meanwhile, it’s convenient to portray Ed Carpenter Racing as the “little guy” organization battling the multiple-car juggernauts fielded by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti.

“We’re a newer team but I don’t feel like we’re not prepared to go race with them and beat them,” said Carpenter, who launched ECR prior to the 2012 season. “We have great sponsors and great partners. We have a real budget. It’s not a shoestring operation. So I don’t feel like the ‘little guy’ thing is necessarily right all the time. We do have less people (17 fulltime employees) because we’re a one-car team most of the time, where the other guys have more cars. That’s probably the biggest difference. I wouldn’t trade any of my people for any of their people, I can tell you that. We just go about our business.”

Carpenter’s IndyCar Series resume includes five winless seasons with Vision Racing, the team formed by George in 2005. George, grandson of IMS patriarch Anton “Tony” Hulman, turned domestic open-wheel racing on its head when he founded the Indy Racing League in 1994 and went racing in ’96 with the purpose of preserving the history and traditions of the Indy 500 as well as domestic oval-track racing. The resulting split with the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams made George a punching bag for everything gone-wrong in open-wheel.

Vision Racing vanished after the 2009 season and George’s tumultuous reign as president/CEO of IMS

Ed Carpenter will start Sunday's 500 from P1. (INDYCAR/LAT USA file photo)

and Hulman & Company is a distant memory. Now, given the success of ECR, Carpenter believes he finally has shed the burden of being Tony George’s kid.

“Yeah, I think so for the most part,” Carpenter said. “I mean, this is my 11th 500 so I don’t think the ‘Silver Spoon’ has gotten me into 11 500s. I think I’m respected by my peers on the track, off the track. It never really bothered me in the past and it doesn’t bother me now. But yeah, you grow up with it whether it’s Graham (Rahal) or Marco (Andretti)…when you’re in a racing family it comes with expectations. It’s always been that way so you don’t know any different.

“You know, I grew up in a house with Tony where I read a lot of crap printed in newspapers about him that wasn’t true most of the time, or all of the time nearly. And the way he handled that over the years taught me a lot how to manage things like that. When I was younger and would read those things it would make me mad, and at that age probably would have dealt with it totally different than how he did. But as you grow older and you look back and think about how he handled different situations it’s like, man, I had a great role model as my dad and a great mentor in this sport.

“Tony, my dad – whatever you want to call him – he’s my partner, too. He’s involved with the race team, too, he has ownership. We have fun working together. I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, still do, and I think it goes both ways. I’m more involved with the team, it’s what I do every day/all day pretty much if I’m not with my family. It’s not his only thing but he’s definitely always there for me to talk to and lean on.”

Three-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon counts Carpenter among the “six or eight guys” he believes can win here on Sunday. “They have a great car for this place,” said Dixon, Indy 500 champion in 2008 and driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. “They put in a lot of hard work on all the oval races. He’s done a fantastic job, especially with the bigger tracks like Fontana. He hasn’t been stealth-fast in race-running situations, but you can’t always gauge it on that. I expect them to have a very competitive, fast car.”

Similarly, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport said ECR is not a secret to those populating Gasoline Alley.

“Anybody that knows the sport, anybody inside the sport rates him as one of the favorites anytime he gets on an oval,” said Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Dallara/Honda. “They do a lot of preparation just for this race on that car and they’ve done an amazing job. Matt Barnes, their lead engineer, I’ve worked with him over the years and he’s very talented. And Ed’s driving the wheels off the thing. They’re definitely going to be a threat.”

Carpenter – who once wadded-up a golf cart on the No. 2 hole tee-box – insisted his family history does not make it any more important or necessary for him to win the Indy 500.

“It’s huge for anyone to win this race,” Carpenter said. “I don’t really feel like me having family and shares in this place makes it more special for me. One of the great things about the Speedway is everyone that comes here, whether you travel from New York or you’re a Hoosier that’s been coming to the race for 50 years, everyone feels like they own part of this place. It’s that type of venue. It’s a career and life-changing moment for anyone who has the opportunity to win it.

“Anymore with how competitive the field is and how many good cars and drivers there are, it takes nearly a perfect race. You can’t make mistakes. I feel like it was a missed opportunity last year. Still feel like we had a better car than 10th but we were 10th. So, definitely determined and desperate to find a way to win the race.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 24 2014
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