Few names in car racing elicit such divided opinions as that of Ed Carpenter, who’s in Toronto this weekend to drive in the Honda Indy races at Exhibition Place.
Much of the controversy stems from his family connections. He’s a member of the Hulman-George clan of Indiana through his stepfather, Tony George. As president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George was the architect of a 12-year split in American open-wheel racing that saw rival racing series fighting for the same fans and the same sponsors.
Indy car racing is still fighting to recover.
True to his roots, Carpenter began his racing career on the dirt tracks and short ovals of the American Midwest. He worked his way through the ranks, spending two seasons in the junior Infiniti Pro Series before reaching George’s team in the Indy Racing League — which split from the dominant CART series in 1996 — in 2004.
The finger-pointing was immediate. Critics claimed he had used his family’s money and clout, not talent, to climb the ladder. He didn’t deserve to be at the top, they said.
At times, the sport is demanding. Responding to political pressure from within, the Indy Racing League introduced road courses to its schedule in 2005. This kind of driving is a discipline that Carpenter has yet to master. The introduction of street races all but dashed his hopes of ever taking a run at a series title.
In the morning warm-up for the 2006 IRL season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Carpenter spun and made light contact with the turn-two wall. His disabled race car coasted down the track to a halt. The yellow flag came out and the field slowed, but fellow racer Paul Dana missed seeing the yellow and carried on at close to full speed, colliding with Carpenter at more than 280 kilometres per hour. Carpenter was injured in the crash. Dana lost his life.
At the end of 2009, his stepfather’s Vision Racing team closed down, and Carpenter was out of a ride and scratching around for seat time. His lack of prowess on road and street courses made a full season program a difficult sell.
Carpenter soldiered on because he loves the sport.
Good results remained sporadic. Detractors of Carpenter, his family and the IRL seemed to take joy in it all, as though his struggles were a sort of penance for the decisions of his elders.
But then, finally, came a breakthrough. Carpenter did what so many people claimed he never would: he won a race in the unified IZOD IndyCar Series.
It came at Kentucky Speedway in the penultimate event of 2011. Carpenter was driving a partial season on a shoestring budget for Sarah Fisher Racing, one of the smallest teams in the series.
Over a 22-lap race, Carpenter played David to veteran driver Dario Franchitti’s Goliath, and claimed victory by a mere 0.0098 seconds.
The narrowest of victories was enough to secure the financial backing for Carpenter to form his own team the following year. He hired one of the paddock’s most respected names, Derrick Walker, to helm the organization and help develop his road course racing.
In the faces of the doubters, Ed Carpenter Racing scored a win at the 2012 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California.
“The first win was hugely special just because it was a breakthrough, a career milestone.
“But then, winning with our own team in our first year with a new group of people, there’s something really special about that.
“They’re special for different reasons and just as memorable.”
This past May, Carpenter won pole position at the Indianapolis 500.
“It was a pretty remarkable day. We knew we had good speed, but winning the pole at Indy is so hard — harder than other races, I think, just because there’s so much that goes into it.
“I knew we had a chance, but to actually win it was a pretty thrilling feeling.”
With his detractors silenced and greater achievements on the horizon, Carpenter looks philosophically on the criticism that has plagued him from his early days.
“I quit worrying about whether people thought I was capable or not a long time ago,” he declares. “I could win two or three Indy 500s and I think there would still be people out there that would say I only got here because of who I am.
“I just ignore it and worry about what I need to worry about.”
Carpenter is the only owner-driver in the series. His program suffered a blow in May when Walker was lured to IndyCar to become president of competition and operations.
Carpenter says the loss hasn’t been debilitating, which he credits to Walker’s leadership.
“We were really fortunate to have Derrick,” he says. “He always referred to himself as the rudder. He put a great group of people together, helped us get structured properly, helped us get the right kinds of systems in place, built our foundations.
“Not to downplay his role, because there will be a time where we’re really going to wish he was still with us, but, so far, the way things are going, I wouldn’t say that we’ve missed him a ton.
“That’s a credit to him, how he set it up, and the types of people that he helped us to get on board.”
Carpenter has two clear goals: to win the Indianapolis 500, and to improve his game on street courses, including this weekend’s two Honda Indy Toronto races.
“I think we’ve made progress. It’s not like we’ve had super results, but for pace and consistency, I’m getting better.
“Toronto is one of the favourite stops for my wife and me. It’s a cool city, a place we like to visit, not only for the race, but just to enjoy it.
“They’re really passionate open-wheel race fans in Toronto. I don’t care where we go on this planet, if there are passionate race fans, it makes it fun.”
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