Indianapolis 500 polesitter Ed Carpenter is better than you think

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Throughout his career, Ed Carpenter probably has been derided more than any other male driver in IndyCar racing. And that’s a damn shame.

Carpenter’s a throwback in the modern IndyCar series. He’s a pure bred oval racer, born and raised on the dirt tracks of Indianapolis. A true Hoosier, he’s a Butler graduate with a marketing degree and about as popular within the confines of Marion County as the Indiana Pacers – which are generating a mass number of headlines and attention given their into the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

Had he been born maybe four or five years earlier, Carpenter could have been a champion in the then-all oval Indy Racing League. He made his debut in the championship in 2003 with the small-budget PDM Racing squad for a handful of events, then moved to Red Bull Cheever Racing in 2004 where he struggled.

Come 2005, when his stepfather Tony George created Vision Racing to ensure Ed still had a seat, the die was cast against him. George, of course, created the Indy Racing League and the civil war that followed from 1996 was – and still is – damning to open-wheel racing.

Carpenter’s first few years occurred when there was an influx of teams from CART and Champ Car entering the IRL, and road and street course racing made its first appearance on an IRL schedule.

He’s never been great at road and street course racing, but from where he started in 2005, he’s come a substantial way. Context is important because now, Carpenter may only be about 1 to 1.5 seconds off the pace at the front of the field. But whereas 10 or 12 years ago that time would have been good enough for say, anywhere from 10th to 15th on the grid, that now is 23rd to 25th because the field, in spec chassis, is so close.

The steps Carpenter has taken to improve include adding a driver coach in Lee Bentham, a former Atlantic Series champion who never had his shot at the big time. Bentham has witnessed a change in aggression and style. More importantly, although Carpenter isn’t as fast as the leaders on road and street courses, he does his best to get out of the way and not interfere with their running.

When it comes to ovals, you can’t deny Carpenter is currently one of IndyCar’s best. He excelled in the admittedly dangerous “pack racing” era with lower horsepower and higher downforce cars, and took a popular first win at Kentucky in 2011 when he edged Dario Franchitti.

Yet last year, when the formula changed and the series took downforce out of the car to make them more difficult to drive, Carpenter adapted just fine. He drove through the field at Indianapolis and Texas although his results didn’t reflect his runs. Then he concluded the season with another win at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway.

Since 2008, the year of open-wheel unification, only a handful of races have been won by teams outside the series’ acknowledged “Big Three” teams of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti. In that time Carpenter, believe it or not, is second only to Justin Wilson in terms of victories (Wilson has three, two with Dale Coyne Racing and the last for the late Paul Newman and Carl Haas).

Carpenter’s race craft at Indy is such that he knows how to bide his time and enter into a position to win in the waning stages of the race.

His pole on Saturday was certainly popular in Indianapolis, if not nationally, yet. And come Sunday, you can be sure Carpenter and the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing entry will be in contention until the very end.

Is he ever going to be a world-beater on road and street courses? Almost certainly not. But as observers, we at least owe him the credit of being one of IndyCar’s best on the ovals, and not dismissing him given his family tree.

Davison, Daly, Kaiser, highlight underdogs of Indy 500 qualifying

Photo: IndyCar
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James Davison and Kyle Kaiser had uphill battles ahead of qualifying for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Davison, in a one-off joint effort involving A.J. Foyt Racing, Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and Belardi Auto Racing, appeared to have enough speed to make the “500” field, but a crash on “Fast Friday” put all those hopes in big jeopardy as the team needed to scramble to repair the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s Chevrolet in time for qualifying.

However, thanks to a herculean effort that saw the team stay at the track until the early hours of Saturday morning, the car was repaired in time for qualifying, and the team survived a chaotic final hour that saw Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe, and Pippa Mann all vying alongside them for the final two spots in the field.

In the end, Davison survived the bumping to make the 33-car field, taking the 33rd and final spot in Saturday, and saw a dramatic increase in speed on Sunday to average 226.255 mph, putting him a very solid 19th on the grid.

An emotional James Davison walks back into Gasoline Alley after making the Indianapolis 500 field on Saturday. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been an incredible weekend for the team after our mishap on Friday,” Davison revealed after Sunday’s qualifying.

He continued, “We had to endure a very long night, obviously it’s always depressing when you have a crashed car around here. We punched above our weight on bump day, and got ourselves in, but didn’t show our hand. We really laid it down on pole day to move from 33rd to 19th. It’s basically two days in a row the team has been rewarded for their hard work, making the show and moving up 14 positions on the grid. Unexpected results are always really nice in motorsports and we got that today with our improvement, substantially. Just very proud of the entire team and want to keep the momentum going next week.”

Conor Daly, too, had a stressful Saturday, as his No. 17 United States Air Force Honda – a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing – lacked speed most of the week.

“Fast Friday” yielded some promise, as his quickest no-tow speed was 226.752 mph, good enough for 26th on the no-tow chart that day.

Saturday, however, proved a struggle. Unable to find the speed on his first two runs – he was bumped out of the field after his second attempt – he needed a third and final effort to make the field.

A four-lap average of 224.874 mph didn’t leave him much wiggle room, but it was just enough to get Daly into the field, as he took 32nd on the board. He’ll start 33rd after averaging 224.429 mph on Sunday.

Conor Daly survived a stressful qualifying weekend to make the Indy 500 field. Photo: IndyCar

“No dramas (on Sunday), but we’re fighting for miles an hour. All I can do is put my foot down and do the best we can for our incredible partners at the U.S. Air Force. It’s incredible to be here with them and at this point, I’m just thankful to be in the field. I’d like to be a lot quicker, but we’ll see what we can do in practice tomorrow to improve our race car,” Daly detailed after Day 2 of qualifying.

Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing faced a similar uphill battle, but theirs was down to experience. Juncos was entering its second “500” after debuting last year, and their debut wasn’t exactly a smooth one.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra only qualified 29th and 31st respectively, though Saavedra was able to finish on the lead lap in 15th. Pigot, meanwhile, fought major handling issues all race long and languished six laps off the lead at race’s end, finishing in 18th.

The 2018 outing didn’t appear much easier, as the team tackled it with rookie driver Kyle Kaiser, with last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champ trying to make the “500” in his first attempt.

“Fast Friday” looked to be a bad omen, as they were 33rd on the no-tow speed charts at the end of the day.

But, Saturday qualifying saw a drastic turn in fortunes, and to the positive side. Kaiser qualified with a four-lap average of 225.934 moh, good enough for 21st at the day’s end, and putting them well clear of any bumping drama.

His Sunday run of 226.398 mph exceeded expectations even further, and he will start Sunday’s race in 17th.

Kyle Kaiser during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

“What an amazing day. I am in shock right now that we are going to be starting 17th for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500,” an elated Kaiser exclaimed after Sunday. “It was a stellar performance by the team. They gave me a super quick car for qualifying. The conditions were very challenging as the wind picked up and it got really hot, but we made it through and put in the best lap in these conditions. I am so proud of the entire Juncos Racing crew and I am thrilled to represent NFP in the race next weekend.”

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