Ed Carpenter is one of the most unassuming of IndyCar drivers despite having worthy bragging rights. But he certainly doesn't lack determination and he does provide useful insight, as RACER editor David Malsher reports.
Ed Carpenter is the only owner-driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series and that alone is reason enough to respect him. But this year he also became a pole winner for the biggest race in the world (ABOVE, with wife Heather) and, as ever, he's been a strong force on ovals, finishing fourth at both Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa.
That latter result could have been much better still, if not for a slow pit stop and a couple of setup adjustments that he felt he should have called for earlier in the race. In the final stint, with the car as he liked it, Carpenter set fastest lap of the race as he hunted down, battled and then dispensed with Oriol Servia; then on the final lap, he passed Graham Rahal. It was a great display in which he proved that he alone had the pace to match the victorious Andretti Autosport team that day.
But more impressive even than these achievements has been Carpenter's improvement on road and street courses. He's not going to be appearing in the Firestone Fast Six and ovals will surely remain his only chance to win races, but over the past two seasons, he's truly slashed the distance to the front-runners. Some will say that's to be expected because 1) he had more to gain than others, or 2) former Formula Atlantic champion Lee Bentham is an excellent driver coach. But that's not the point: to have motivation enough to improve himself to that extent, especially now he's well into his 30s, and without the help of a teammate with whom to share data, is highly admirable.
So how big are these improvements? Well, take the last event at Baltimore, with its 80-second lap, as an example. In 2011, driving for Sarah Fisher Racing, Carpenter was 3.3 seconds off P1 in his qualifying group, this year, that gap was 2sec. And on natural road courses, his progress is startling. At Barber Motorsports Park, he was just 1.5sec off the fastest time in Q1, Group 1. And at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (a daunting track by anyone's standards), in 2011, Ed was 4.2 seconds off P1 in his group. Last year, with his own team and in his first year with the Dallara DW12, that gap dropped to 2.6sec; this year he was just 1.7sec off.
Of course, his pole position for the Indianapolis 500 will remain Carpenter's highlight of the season and that may hold true even if he wins Fontana next month. He may have been born in Illinois, but Ed has lived in Indianapolis since his racing career started at the age of eight, he's a graduate of Butler University, and then there's the small matter of his stepfather being Tony George. Little wonder that only Tony Kanaan can match Carpenter's popularity with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd, nor that pole for the No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka machine was greeted rapturously by the locals: Ed is effectively a Hoosier.
Having been brought up in a race-imbued and wealthy family, he could have also been one of those drivers who stalks around IndyCar paddocks like he owns them, or who needs to surround himself with sycophants. But instead, when Carpenter is approached for an autograph, he looks almost as shy as the fan requesting it, and he appears similarly taken aback when the media want to speak with him. When they do, he's great on camera for not being great on camera – he's reserved, and sometimes slightly uncomfortable but comes across as very, very natural. There's no big act with Ed, and that's because he's modest. As well as being memorable for featuring the most popular wins in their respective seasons, the races at Fontana last year and Kentucky the year before were followed by post-race interviews and press conferences with a truly self-effacing winner who was quick to give credit to the team.
Between those two wins, of course, he shifted from Fisher's squad to his own, Ed Carpenter Racing, which is run in a manner that reflects its owner's personality. Despite the impressive all-over livery, and despite Ed's background, this is not a team with a huge budget. It's adequate to run one car, but there's no evidence of lavish spending on needless luxuries at ECR. Certainly there's not enough spare money to run a second car for even a partial schedule, and it's hard to imagine Carpenter seeking a pay driver. This team is to be his legacy and so an additional car would not be sought as a source of income, but a source of results.
But when RACER sat down with Ed in Baltimore, the first topic of conversation had to be the speed he's discovered on tracks that turn right as well as left.