ED CARPENTER was 8 years old, his stepfather asked him and his brother if they wanted to race quarter midgets. Carpenter had already been pushing the limits of driving a tractor on his family’s property, so he jumped at the opportunity. The stepfather took the boys to the parking lot of his workplace and turned them loose on some laps. The stepfather was Tony George, of course, then second-generation president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And the parking lot was that of the IMS Museum, in the infield of the most storied racetrack in the world.
“When you’re a kid, you’re just taking the opportunity to race, you don’t realize how much it shapes your passion for the 500,” says Carpenter. “Looking back, growing up at the Speedway was a driving force.”
The legacy and shadow of family has been riding Carpenter’s rear bumper his entire career. But he has embraced his heritage as a drafting partner helping to push him around the track. Today, Carpenter is 42, head of Ed Carpenter Racing, which he co-owns with George and Stuart Reed. As a driver for that team, he is preparing to qualify for his 20th consecutive Indy 500, where he has had three Top-5 finishes.
And along the way, either due to or despite his royal racing lineage, Carpenter has emerged as a perennial hometown favorite to cheer on every May. “As my career has gone on,” he says, “I can feel the support of the community.”
Carpenter’s upbringing as a prince of the Brickyard was unique. Of course, he is not the first racecar driver with family connections. Racing in any series is largely a family business full of “Jr.s” and third- and fourth-generation drivers, owners, and crewmembers with matching surnames, from Andretti to Unser, stitched into their fire suits. Carpenter is far from the only person on the paddock to ever deal with the appearance of nepotism.
[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Ed Carpenter”]
Being Tony George’s stepson carried its own extra baggage because George wasn’t exactly the universally beloved custodian of IMS.
“It was probably a misconception that because he was Tony George’s stepson he got preferential treatment,” says Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president whose own stepson, Conor Daly, now drives for Ed Carpenter Racing. “And my guess is that he put more pressure on himself because, at the end of the day, it was going to be what he could deliver from behind the wheel that mattered.”
But being Tony George’s stepson carried its own extra baggage because George wasn’t exactly the universally beloved custodian of IMS (that was Carpenter’s step-great-grandfather, George’s grandpa Tony Hulman). George was a polarizing figure that drew the ire of fans and many in the sport when, as IMS president, he broke from CART and formed the Indy Racing League in 1996. The move essentially created “The Split” that divided American open-wheel racing and led to more than a decade of decline from which the since reunified series has never fully recovered.
That was before Carpenter’s time, while he was still in high school racing midgets and sprints. While also going to college at Butler, he rose to race in Indy Lights, the new feeder series for IRL in 2002. By this time the dust from The Split had mostly settled—but plenty of resentment lingered. Carpenter, 21 and a fresh college grad, just wanted to race. “For me, having Tony was a huge benefit,” says Carpenter. “He’s extremely knowledgeable about the sport. It was hard at times because there’s an expectation with my family’s experience in the sport, but that never really bothered me. There’s nothing you can do about it. I just tried to take advantage of the opportunities I had.”
At the end of a successful sophomore season in Indy Lights under the tutelage and ownership of none other than A.J. Foyt (which included a win at Indy in the inaugural Freedom 100, three weeks after getting his Butler degree), Carpenter got the call up to finish the IRL season with PDM Racing. After his first full season in the big leagues with Red Bull Cheever Racing, he accepted a ride with Vision Racing, the controversial new team owned by George, who was still president and CEO of both IMS and the IRL. Carpenter just kept his head in the cockpit and grabbed his first Top 5 at the 500 in 2008.
Two years later, Vision Racing lost its sponsors and was forced to close shop. Carpenter moved over to Sarah Fisher Racing, owned by the popular nine-time 500 starter, where he won his first IndyCar race at Kentucky. In 2012, he and George started Ed Carpenter Racing. Since then, it has been a calendar patchwork of putting together seasons as driver and/or owner, including six IndyCar wins (two with himself behind the wheel), and a Top-5 series standing finish for Josef Newgarden in 2016.
But through it all Carpenter has managed to find himself happily behind the wheel at Indy each May. He’s won the pole three times, including 2018, when he led the most laps (65) until Will Power pulled in front and pulled away, beating Carpenter by more than 3 seconds. That chasm of time felt like a blink to Carpenter, who had never finished higher than fifth. “Finishing second is hard,” he says. “When you think about a 500-mile race and analyze all the things that happened … it’s demoralizing to know that you were that close, and it’s so hard to put yourself in that position. On the flipside, you’ve got that experience to draw from in the future. You learn from that.”
Perhaps that boundless optimism is why Carpenter is one of Indy’s favorite sons. Maybe it’s also because the only thing local racing devotees love more than a winner is a driver who comes up just short and keeps trying—year after year for 20 years.
Carpenter’s secure status as Brickyard darling might also have something to do with the fact that he’s ours, not only because his family’s roots run so deep and storied here, but because he has chosen to plant himself and his family here, too. After all, he stayed here for college, then a career as a driver, then as an owner.
But in the end, perhaps the most impressive thing about Carpenter is that he doesn’t just live and work here—he understands Indianapolis and its love for this race and this place. “At the public drivers’ meetings, nobody gets more cheers than Ed Carpenter,” says Boles. “Our fans know that the most important thing in the world to Ed is winning the Indianapolis 500. They grew up watching him grow into a racecar driver. They love him because he loves the race like they do.”
And even though Carpenter has a clear hereditary claim to those bricks, he is happier sharing it with the city. “Part of what makes this race so special is that everyone has a connection to it,” he says. “It’s not just drivers, but generations of fans. In the garages, you’ll hear stories from old men whose dad or grandad brought them to the track at age 6. Everyone feels connected to it. I’ve never really felt it means more to me. It means so much to everyone. It’s been part of our community. That’s what’s magical. When you’re there, everyone feels like a part of it.”