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.RACER: Pretty much since the Dallara DW12 appeared, you've been really gaining on the leaders, laptime-wise. How would you explain it?
ED CARPENTER: We work hard, and in fact you could make some arguments that we've worked harder on improving ourselves on the street and road courses than we have on ovals. It's just so hard to get the results. [Driver coach] Lee Bentham has been with us since we started the team last year and he's a big asset, and I think the team itself is good and full of strong people. The car's still ahead of me at these places, and it can get frustrating because some days you feel you're getting closer and then others, like you're climbing Everest. There's no doubt that having a second car would help a lot, too. But overall I'd say I'm enjoying the challenge. It's important to monitor the progress and then keep chipping away.
What would you say your struggles before that were based on?
My background before IndyCar was all oval based, no road racing whatsoever, whereas 99 percent of the guys in IndyCar had the opposite challenge; they were brought up on road courses and had to learn how to drive ovals. Ovals are such a different discipline that demands finesse and being way ahead of your car, and that's why I'd say I'm better on road courses than street courses because of how your mindset has to be, how your hands are, and how smooth you have to be – more like an oval. Street courses are harsh and demand more reactive driving, more hand movement. So I'm having to break the habits of many years of only needing to drive in one particular way.
But one of your drives I'll always remember is Indy last year, when your front wing got stuck and the car became very on-the-nose. It was frightening but impressive to watch you dirt-tracking it around, so it's not like you can't manhandle a car…
Yeah, the front wing adjuster broke, so I was having to catch a lot of slides, but eventually I spun. I mean, yeah, that was definitely a situation where you have to do a lot more steering, but still, even with a loose car on an oval, you need to be a lot more controlled with your inputs. If you're moving your hands too much, you're going to upset the balance.
Given how little you're allowed to change on the cars these days, is it fairly easy to track your progress as a driver and see how much is down to your improved technique?
Well, there are a couple of ways to track progress: one is in results and unfortunately it's hard to see much improvement there, but our race pace is much more competitive and now I have to work on being more consistent, about being good on both reds [alternate tires] and blacks [primaries] and working on race craft. Before, we were just working on finding the pace to be able to race! Lately, we've been getting to where we are part of the race and so we're continuing to work on improving technique. And honestly, I'm learning each time I'm out there. The one thing I'd really like is for the series to allow us to test more; that would be the biggest, quickest way we could improve ourselves.
Inevitably, the question has to come up regarding whether you would get a teammate, which I assume depends on money, or in sharing your ride with a street or road course specialist.
Well, obviously some people have wondered why I don't arrange it where I run the ovals and then have Mike Conway in the car for road and street courses because that's all he wants to do. But I asked that question to the folks at Fuzzy's Vodka after our first year, just to check that we were giving them everything they expected, and it's not something they were interested in doing. It's not something I'm interested in doing either, to be honest! But obviously if the sponsors and investors hadn't been satisfied, it's something I would consider, no doubt.
So it's not as if that idea hasn't been talked about but where we are with the sponsorship of the No. 20 car, I'm the driver. Certainly we'd like to add a car but easier said than done. That's one of the hard parts about being in only our second year, compared with teams that have been around longer and have accumulated extra support equipment, whether it's transportation stuff, timing stands, fuel rigs, radios… everything. To run an additional car is more of a financial hump for us to get over than it is for most other teams; the investment required is a little higher.Would you hope to add that second car as soon as next year?
Yes. We've been hunting for sponsors all season together with a company that works with our commercial side. They've been working hard, I've been working hard, trying to find the companies who have the same objectives as us and who see an IndyCar team as a good fit for them. It's hard to put a percentage on where we are with it. I feel like we're making progress, but until the contract is signed, you never know how far off you were at any given time before that, if you see what I mean…
And would you have one car entirely sponsored by Fuzzy's and one entirely sponsored by the other company, like Sam Schmidt does, or would you spread the budget and branding?
Probably separate. I mean, we have the ability to sell at a few races for my car, too, for certain markets. We just haven't done a good enough job of capitalizing on that.
How secure is the sponsorship with Fuzzy's, going forward?
Our original deal was for three years, so that's up for renewal at the end of next season, and I don't have any reason to believe that situation has changed. I mean, you never fully know. When you've been in racing for as long as some of us have, when you get toward the end of every season, there's an insecure part of you that wonders about these things. That's what you do in the off-season, right? You worry. But seriously, yeah, I believe everything's good there.
I assume driver choice for the second seat is one of the least important things to nail down, in a way, because there are so many good ones available.
Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of guys right now who don't have secure futures: Oriol [Servia], JR [Hildebrand], Ryan Briscoe and I bet there are more names that will emerge as we get into the off-season. So let's see what we get for sponsorship because ultimately, you want to add someone who's a good fit from all aspects. But yeah, there are already options out there who I think would be a good fit with our team.
Do you currently feel like just a team owner in name and finances, or do you also find time to get your hands dirty in the managerial side, too?
Hmm…yes and no. When we're at the racetrack, rarely does anything happen where I have to take a team owner-style mentality. I really try to just focus on what I need to be doing as a driver and putting that first always. Back at the shop, I know everything that's going on and make myself part of the group decisions, but at the same time, we've got a great group of people – managers and department heads – who do a great job, and I'm not a micro-manager by any means. Derrick [Walker, ECR's team manager in 2012] helped us build a really good team and structure, we've got good people; the best thing to do is let them get on and do their jobs.
So as the only owner-driver out there, when you're turning into corners do you ever find yourself thinking, “If I go off here, I'm going to bust the front wing which costs X amount of dollars?”
Ha! No, you can check with Tim [Broyles] our team manager but I don't know that I've ever actually asked the costs of parts. Well…actually, that's not quite true: when we crashed in qualifying at Indianapolis, I did ask for the total cost because I knew we'd torn up a lot of stuff. But you have to accept that at some point it's going to happen, so we have some numbers in the budget for crash damage and I see our budget projections and I know we're within what we'd set aside for potential accidents. So that means it's not something I have to think about when I'm out on track, which is good!
How do you feel about the schedule? Would you like to see more ovals? Did you enjoy having Pocono added this year, for example?
Yeah, Pocono was great: that is a fun track, and there was a good crowd, too. I think Brandon and Nick Igdalsky [who run Pocono] do a great job; they have a great thing going there, so I hope that was the start of something long-term with IndyCar.
Certainly I'd like to see more ovals, to get more of a balance to the schedule. There are so many good racetracks we don't go to, so I'd like to see them return, but at the same time, we're all running our own little businesses and we need to do what's successful for IndyCar, because IndyCar needs to be successful for the teams to be successful. It's a balancing act, but I'd like to get the schedule closer than we are currently to having 50 percent ovals, 50 percent road and street courses. Actually, we aren't that far from where we were a year or two ago in terms of venues, but the double-headers are skewing it more from a points perspective…
So how about a double-header at Iowa or in the future, maybe Phoenix?
Yeah, that would be cool. I mean, we all worry about if you tear a car up there, it would be harder to recover. Detroit, for instance, we tore up a lot of stuff but for the most part it was just wings, so that requires unbolting and bolting on new ones. Whereas, have a crash at Phoenix and you're replacing a lot more than just wings! That's why an oval double-header hasn't happened yet, but that doesn't mean we should rule it out, either. With this car and the quality of the drivers and teams in our series right now, the attrition rate on ovals is much lower than it used to be; fewer accidents, fewer mistakes, fewer equipment failures.
Finally, the Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are in your blood, in your family's bloodline. What are your thoughts on the IndyCar Series probably racing on the IMS road course in the Month of May?
I don't have a problem with racing on the IMS road course, but….I don't really know how I feel about racing there on opening weekend for the 500. If I had to give an answer one way or the other, I'm not in favor. I do understand what both IMS and IndyCar are trying to do from a business perspective, but from the traditionalist side, the habits of a lifetime, and how I think the Month of May should be, then no, I don't like the idea.
And I don't think there's a driver out there who'll feel normal driving the road course on opening weekend of the Month of May. We'll be racing there but our heads will be someplace else.