INDIANAPOLIS – A customary calm and cool demeanor hides how emotional Ed Carpenter gets about driving a race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
OK, perhaps emotional might seem a bit too expressive of an adjective for an NTT IndyCar Series owner/driver who is as level-headed as they come.
“It’s easier to get out of bed when you’re coming here,” Carpenter said Wednesday after participating in the open test on the IMS oval. “There’s definitely always an enthused excitement level when you get to come back out and drive here.”
Of course, he said this with a straight face.
“I’m still that way until I get in the car,” he said. “Inside, I’m much more excited.”
The straight face finally breaks into a smile. Then that smile widens even more to show teeth.
After a lengthy offseason and four series races in which he watched Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones drive his ECR cars on road and street circuits, Carpenter finally got back into his No. 20 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet with his ever-focused eye on the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
As should be expected, the 2018 Indy 500 runner-up and three-time pole sitter got up to speed quickly. He needed just five laps early on to post the fastest lap to that point. A rain delay had him and everyone else hoping for another opportunity “to go out and play,” which he later made the most of by finishing second on the speed chart at 226.414 mph.
While ECR still has another race to prepare for in May 11’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, Carpenter has admittedly shifted into his familiar gear of preparing for what he considers the all-important “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“At this point, although we have the grand prix coming up, it’s hard to turn your focus away from 500 prep once it starts,” he said. “We’re in that mindset.”
Lest anyone forget, nor will Carpenter ever need reminded of how close he came to winning a year ago. The 37-year-old Butler University graduate who grew up in the shadow of IMS with dreams of winning was right there. But, alas, Team Penske’s Will Power forced Carpenter to settle for a career-best runner-up finish that was bittersweet to say the least.
Carpenter couldn’t hide his disappointment in the heat of the moment. A healthier big-picture perspective would take time.
“In the moment, it’s more disappointing than finishing second for any other race,” Carpenter said during February’s INDYCAR Media Day in Austin, Texas. “Once you move past that, it’s motivation and encouragement that we are doing the right things. We didn’t win the race, Will won the race. But we were the next-closest person to winning the race.
“We did more right than most other people. It’s just building on that foundation and that process within the team to get to that point. So, you just have to take the positives from it and figure out how to make incremental improvements from there to get up one more spot.”
Carpenter’s three career NTT IndyCar Series wins have come on big ovals: Kentucky Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. His previous best at Indianapolis was fifth place back in 2008, so it’s not like his 2018 run should be lessened in its importance because the ultimate objective wasn’t realized. The team also shined in qualifying as teammates Pigot and Danica Patrick also made the Fast Nine Shootout.
Still, the even-keeled boss inevitably gets back to the bottom line.
“There’s a lot of things I’m proud of, but it’s also not what we were there to do,” Carpenter said. “For me, I’m fine with everybody being a little disappointed and upset for a couple of days. Then from there, OK, what didn’t we do right? What can we do better? In that race, there wasn’t really many things we didn’t execute on, they were just a little bit better and had the track position at the end.”
A series regular since 2004 who has limited his driving to ovals since 2015 so that he can focus on team ownership, Carpenter has assured in recent years that he’s not slowing down and is as fresh and as ready to meet the Indy challenge than at any time before. Last year’s result was proof after being humbled more often than not with just three top-10 finishes in 14 previous starts.
Carpenter flashes that grin again when told how legendary four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt – for whom he drove to victory at Indy in the first Indy Lights Freedom 100 in 2003 – is known for telling his drivers that the race means more than anything in a season.
“You can win that race and the year’s a success,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t really matter what happens elsewhere. I remember talking to (Ryan) Hunter-Reay the year he won (in 2014). He was commiserating because he crashed twice at Detroit and really kind of had a miserable summer after that. He was complaining to me about that. I was like, ‘Really? You won (the Indy 500) this year.’
“I’ve only ever heard one driver ever who told me he would prefer to win the championship, and I think even that one person has since changed his mind.”
Carpenter didn’t want to divulge the name of that driver. When a reporter correctly advised that Power had previously made such an assertion, Carpenter acknowledged that identity.
“That was Will. I’ll bet he’d give you a different answer now,” Carpenter said. “Anyone, they win that race, it’s going to be a successful year.”
That accomplishment would undoubtedly inspire an emotional reaction from the understated one. Until then, he’s the same old Carpenter with a monotone voice and perspective always seemingly in check.
“I’m definitely excited to be in the car,” he said, straight-faced as usual. “I’m excited to get another crack at it.”
Indy 500 practice begins Tuesday, May 14. Qualifying to set the 33-car field occurs May 18 and 19. The race airs live beginning at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, May 26. Tickets remain available at IMS.com.