NEWTON, Iowa – For all its use of “#IndyRivals” as a hashtag and marketing point, the Verizon IndyCar Series hasn’t had much in the way of actual rivalries to actually sell.
But 12 months ago in the cornfields of Iowa, two Americans did IndyCar’s marketing job for them, in Ed Carpenter and Sage Karam.
Carpenter, the now 14-year series veteran (albeit part-time for several of those seasons) had the experience, wisdom and veteran savvy of someone how knows how to race.
Karam, then a rookie, was the brash, unapologetic upstart unafraid to dice it up and occasionally overstep the line of racing sensibilities.
The contrast in styles nearly came to a head last year at Iowa, Karam racing Carpenter quite hard throughout the 300-lap Iowa Corn 300 to where Carpenter knew he needed to talk to Karam post-race. Karam was third, Carpenter sixth, and their battle upstaged the two Americans that finished 1-2 for the second straight year in Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden.
Anyway, flash forward to today and Karam won’t have a chance at an encore performance because he’s not in a car.
Carpenter, meanwhile, hasn’t finished that high in any race he’s started since – and considering Carpenter’s renowned, still, as one of IndyCar’s top oval racers, that’s something that needs to change.
This will only be Carpenter’s fifth race start since Iowa last year and he hasn’t even finished a race since then.
At Pocono last August, Carpenter retired with engine woes. Then in his two completed starts this year, he brushed the wall in Phoenix and retired with electrical gremlins at the Indianapolis 500. The Texas start, he said, went well before that race was temporarily suspended until August 27.
As Carpenter related to NBC Sports on Friday, it’s been a weird year or so since this time last year from a driving standpoint, even though the Ed Carpenter Racing team has been firing on all cylinders as a team.
“It’s getting frustrating!” Carpenter admitted, as he’ll start seventh today. “It’s been a weird year. Indy, we had some electrical issues. I was more disappointed last year because our cars weren’t set up right. This year, we just had issues.
“Phoenix, I made a mistake. We were on for a good run. Texas was good for us early. But I’ve yet to finish a race this year. It’s been either an issue, rain, or whatever. So I want to get a whole race in. I want to get back on a podium or win a race. It’s been too long.”
Upon reflecting on his battle with Karam last year, Carpenter said he has no regrets.
“I would do it all over again,” he said. “I felt like with the whole situation, I wanted to send a signal or message. And I did that. I don’t think anything bad came out of it.
“Perhaps some people didn’t like how I handled it. But so long as the emotion is controlled and genuine, it’s fine. I wouldn’t be mad at my guys for doing the same thing. If they did it with the right angle, so be it.”
Carpenter – the driver – also has to monitor teammate Josef Newgarden, who continues to progress and drive despite his clavicle and right hand injuries. The pair are in matching Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolets this weekend, only separated by their on-board camera mount color (Carpenter’s is red, Newgarden’s yellow) and helmet liveries.
“He’s definitely not 100 percent yet,” Carpenter said of Newgarden. “There’s still quite a bit of discomfort in his hand. But better than at Road America.
“It’s a different race here. He’ll be fine. It’ll be uncomfortable, but once he’s in the car it’ll be next to impossible to get him out. The adrenaline should get him through.”
Carpenter returns to the cockpit for the first time since Texas but in an oddity will be making his first race start since the Indianapolis 500 in May. Spencer Pigot has since taken over the reins of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on road and street courses, and was a career-best ninth last time out at Road America.
Carpenter, who tested with Newgarden’s de facto reserve and key team asset this year JR Hildebrand last week at Iowa, said the track is slightly different and the race complexion will be different being a day race (Sunday, 5 p.m. ET, NBCSN), but still expects it to be entertaining.
“Yeah it’s a little bumpier but its pretty insignificant in how it will affect our cars and the racing. The track is in great shape,” he said.
Things he also hopes will be in great shape? The position of his No. 20 Chevrolet on the pylon this Sunday afternoon, after the year-long dry spell without a finish.