No One Wants To Win The 500 More Than Ed Carpenter

Starting from the pole position for the third time, the local favorite has a long history of near misses.
With 25 laps to go in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, Ed Carpenter was exactly where he wanted to be. Sitting in second place with the race under caution, Carpenter coasted in silence around the 2.5-mile oval, flexing his fingers, gripping the wheel, eyeing Ryan Hunter-Reay’s bright-yellow DHL machine, the only car between him and a lifelong dream.

Carpenter had run well at Indy before, scoring a top 5 finish in 2008 and charging from the back in 2012 to hang with the leaders late, only to lose it in Turn 1 with 20 to go. The 2014 race was different, though. He had started from the pole—the second straight year he’d done so—and had been effortlessly fast all day, leading 26 laps and recording a top race speed that was almost a mile an hour faster than his closest competitors, including Hunter-Reay, who he’d been casually swapping the lead back-and-forth with for the past 50 miles.

And now, with 25 laps left, victory was finally within reach.

As the pace car pulled away and the pack began to accelerate down the front straight, Townsend Bell, sitting in third, jumped to the high side and pulled alongside Carpenter, who held firm in the middle lane. “Outside, outside, outside,” his spotter warned over the radio, just as fourth place James Hinchcliffe attempted to pass both Carpenter and Bell on the inside, making it three-wide heading into Turn 1. Carpenter, pinched from both sides, ever-so-slightly bumped tires with Bell, which pushed him into Hinchcliffe, sending both spinning hard into the wall.

“Three-wide in an IndyCar around here does not work, ever!” Eddie Cheever exclaimed on the ABC broadcast as the smashed rides came to rest next to one another against the wall.

Carpenter was out of his car before the safety trucks had even rolled to a stop, pulling off the steering wheel and scrambling out of his seat like his suit was on fire. He headed straight for Hinchcliffe, whose car had come to a rest right next to his. Carpenter flipped up his visor with a yank and gave Hinchcliffe a sarcastic thumbs-up, leaning in close to make sure his point was clear before being pulled back by a safety-crew member.

Steaming, Carpenter retreated toward the safety vehicle, ripping off his gloves, pulling off his helmet, but when he saw that Hinchcliffe was ok and climbing out of the car, he went back for more. Off came the flame-resistant balaclava, out came the earplugs. He started to unload his frustration on Hinchcliffe before realizing that 300,000 people were watching as Dave Calabro called the play-by-play over the track’s PA system, and so he spun back around toward the safety vehicle, screamed something, and pulled open the door and climbed in. Hinchcliffe, looking hesitant, followed him into the back seat, just as ABC’s camera’s cut away.

Later, after Ryan Hunter-Reay had taken the checkered flag by 0.06 seconds—the second-closest finish in 500 history—Carpenter was asked about the conversation on the ride back to the medical center with Hinchcliffe.

Looking deflated, as if all the energy had been sucked out of him, Carpenter couldn’t help but be blunt:

“I told him that if he didn’t have a concussion last week, I would have punched him in the face.”

If you follow Ed Carpenter through the garage on a quiet weekday of practice, it’s a little like watching the sheriff of a small town making his morning rounds. “Go get ’em Ed!” an old man with a white beard yells from one side, and Carpenter, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, gives a wave. “Be safe out there!” a woman in a visor and a fanny pack follows up from the other, as Carpenter puts a finger to his forehead in acknowledgment. Carpenter, a hometown boy, is more than a fan favorite around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—he’s damn-near beloved.

It’s an earned respect, though, a love he’s had to prove he deserves, just like every other driver who has stepped foot on these hallowed grounds, dreaming of winning the Indianapolis 500.

Carpenter isn’t just popular at Indy because he’s from Indy. The crowd doesn’t roar noticeably louder when he records the fastest lap of qualifying just because he has lived here since he was 8 years old. They don’t buy Fuzzy Vodka golf shirts because he went to Butler or keep drinks cold in forest-green No. 20 koozies because Carpenter and his wife Heather—who he met when she worked at the infield care center—are so visible in the community.

It’s great that all of those things are true. But that’s not the reason the fans up in the stands root for him with so much passion during May.

“It’s because I’ve been trying so long,” Carpenter said, a few days before qualifications. He was being self-deprecating, but it’s true. It’s not about otherworldly talent, or having a big personality, or being a local boy—what attracts the attention of the fans is total devotion to winning the Indianapolis 500.

For the first five or six years of his career, driving for the family-owned Vision Racing, Carpenter’s presence at the track didn’t merit much more than a polite clap, a fact he readily acknowledges. It wasn’t until 2010, after Vision folded and Carpenter found himself out of a full-time job, staring at an uncertain future, that things began to change.

Carpenter and his stepdad, Tony George, the onetime president of the Speedway—and a former driver himself, who never made it above Indy Lights—had kept some equipment and a few people around from the Vision days. The first priority was putting together a deal for Indy, which Carpenter did, securing a sponsorship with Fuzzy’s Vodka to run the 500 in partnership with Panther Racing in 2010. He ended up running four IndyCar races that year, but when the season concluded, he was again out of a job and looking for a ride.

“I didn’t know what was next for me career-wise,” he said earlier this month, standing inside the garage of the multi-car team he now owns. It got to a point, where he and Heather—they had two kids at the time—started having discussions about him getting “a real job.”

“We couldn’t afford to just be an aspiring racecar driver sitting on the sidelines,” Carpenter said. “I needed to provide for the family.”

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. Carpenter landed an 11-race deal to drive for the retiring Sarah Fisher, and he took full advantage of the opportunity, posting a strong showing at Indy, qualifying eighth and finishing 11th, and going on to win his first IndyCar race later that season at Kentucky Motor Speedway.

By the time Carpenter started his own team in 2012—the year he charged from 28th to fifth before losing it in Turn 1—fans were convinced that his intentions were pure, that he wasn’t just racing here because of some familial persuasion, or any other motive that didn’t have to do with the single-minded goal of winning the Indianapolis 500. But it wasn’t until the following year, 2013, that his status around the Speedway became truly elevated. That’s when he won the pole for the first time and led the most laps during the race (handling issues in the second half relegated him to 10th).

That was the moment he became, after a decade of trying and a quarter-century of dreaming, a real contender at the place that he had literally grown up in the shadows of.

Then came 2014. Another pole. Another dominant racecar. The crash.

Carpenter doesn’t really like to talk about it today, other than to acknowledge that it was a missed opportunity, the biggest of his career. “The car was really quick,” he said. “That’s the position we wanted to be in, and we really hadn’t even started racing anybody hard up to that point.”

You know when you’ve got a car that’s fast enough, he admitted, and in 2014, “that was a winning car.” But it’s all “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Hunter-Reay ran a great race, and they weren’t there at the end.

Carpenter’s team, however, those on the crew who were with ECR in 2014, aren’t as diplomatic.

“They’re still pissed at him,” said one person close to the driver, pointing at James Hinchcliffe as he drove by on a golf cart.

In a series that’s dominated by gregarious personalities and outsized egos, Carpenter often gets portrayed by the media as being “mild-mannered” and “subdued.” He’s the quiet one, the nice guy, a driver not apt to deliver confrontational quotes. And it’s true, Ed Carpenter is a nice guy, and he’s certainly not loud and boisterous or looking to stir anything up if he can help it. But those descriptors— “mild-mannered,” “subdued”—obscure the intensity and passion that sit just below his calm, in-control exterior.

That’s what was on display in 2014, an uncontrollable outburst of intense inner emotion, a combination of anger and devastation that welled up inside and burst out, A.J. Foyt–style, for all the fans to see. It was something they responded to and appreciated—not in a reality TV way. It was a genuine, very public confirmation of what many had already suspected was true, the reason why they call out his name, and wear his gear, and pump their fists when he’s drawn in the pre-race pool: No one wants to win the Indianapolis 500 more than Ed Carpenter.

It’s a narrative that Carpenter rejects. It would be out of character and presumptuous for him to say the desire burning inside of him to win Indy is any stronger than it is for his 32 competitors.

But from a fan’s perspective, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion. It’s hard not to see a guy whose whole life is interwoven into this place, connected to this race; a guy who’s been dreaming of pulling into Victory Lane, drinking the milk, and kissing the bricks for longer than anyone else—someone who’s been focused on winning the Indianapolis 500 since long before he could even legally drive around the streets of Indianapolis.

When you talk to people surrounding him, it’s the first thing they mention: He wants to win this thing so bad, they tell you, almost in a whisper, as if to speak it aloud would be to jinx it. During the month of May, Ed is not the boss, they say. The rest of the year, he wears so many different hats, takes on so much responsibility, but during May he has one job: drive the racecar. It’s all Carpenter wants to do anyway.

“The easiest time of all is when I’m in the car, especially here,” he said, with a restrained smile. “It’s easy to not care about anything else.”

And that’s the thing. As much as Carpenter wants to deny that winning this race, in his 15th attempt, would somehow mean more to him than his competitors, he can’t hide the way his eyes light up when he talks about driving here, or the way the corners of mouth turn upwards when he mentions how relaxing it is to be going to 200-plus miles an hour around a race track that can take it all away in an instant.

No one wants to win the Indianapolis 500 more than Ed Carpenter.

Carpenter came strolling down pit road on a recent Sunday afternoon, his wife and three kids in tow. The sun was glaring off his black sunglasses, his drivers suit was bunched at this waist, and there was a slight smile on his face. He looked loose and relaxed, taking it all in, as he made his way down the Fast Nine qualifying line, slapping hands with former ECR driver Josef Newgarden, before finding teammates Spencer Pigot and Danica Patrick to offer a few words of encouragement. As he walked back to his car, Carpenter gave off all the appearances of being confident. After all, he had a fast car, he was prepared, and after having done this many times before, he knew what it would take to make it happen. Despite his calm, relaxed exterior, however, he admitted he was a tightly wound ball of anxiety.

“Let’s GO Ed!” a man wearing an STP romper and aviators yelled from the other side of the fence.

When the first driver, Patrick, rolled off the line and onto the track, Carpenter, alone by the car, had his eyes glued to his phone, where he was using the Verizon IndyCar app to get real-time telemetry updates on his competitors’ qualifying runs, things like speed, gear, RPMs, when guys were lifting, where they were struggling. For an information-driven driver like Carpenter, all the numbers and data—the ability to get a visual sense of what was happening on the track before getting out there—had a calming effect, especially when he saw Patrick and Pigot post good runs. He knew their setup, what their downforce was, the differences between all three cars, and the changes that had been made going into that run.

He knew they had a chance.

Finally, after what seemed like an hours-long wait, it was time for Carpenter to get into the car. In went the ear buds, on came the balaclava, his suit was zipped up, and his helmet strapped. He walked over to Heather, she kissed his helmet, and they said their I-love-yous, a pre-race ritual born out of the acknowledgment that any time Carpenter gets into a racecar, it could be the last.

“I hate qualifying. It’s my least favorite day at the track,” Heather admitted. “I know Ed. Ed will crash before he lifts going around the turns.”

The crew pushed the car into line as Carpenter handed over his phone, pulled on his gloves, and flipped down his visor. The anxiety was gone—he was in his Happy Place. The engine roared to life, and the car sat idling for a few seconds. 228.7—that was the speed to beat. The race official dropped his hand, Carpenter’s Chevy engine fired, and there was a squeal of rubber as he exited pit lane and made his way out onto the track.

Time slows down inside the cockpit, even when you’re traveling at over 200 mph. Carpenter was feeling the car, the track, the wind whipping by outside—the rhythm of ride, so to speak. All that information he had absorbed out of the car, all the emotions he felt, had been compartmentalized. He was one with the car. And when he saw that first lap speed of 230 mph pop up on the steering wheel’s telemetry, he felt a small tingle of exhilaration because he knew it was the fastest lap of qualifying, but at the same, he knew it was just one lap.

To those in the stands, however, the fans who responded with a cheer so loud it sounded as if their voices had been shot out of a canon, that first lap sealed the deal—there was no doubt in their minds that Carpenter had just won his third pole.

When the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500, Carpenter will have a lot working in his favor—sitting on the pole, with the weight of the crowd behind him, and 14 years of experience to draw upon. A lot can happen in 500 miles, though: a driveshaft could inexplicably break; a yellow flag could drop at the wrong time; a competitor could try to make it three-wide into Turn 1.

It’s been said that Indianapolis chooses its winners; that all a driver can do is put himself in position to be chosen. It’s a reality that Ed Carpenter understands, more than most, and something he embraces.

He’s exactly where he wants to be.