Ed Carpenter wants to win Indy 500 for both himself and adopted hometown of Indianapolis

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Ed Carpenter’s destiny was sealed on May 28, 1989.

Just a few months earlier, Carpenter’s family had moved 90 miles east, from Paris, Illinois, just over the state line, to their new home in Indianapolis.

“I was almost born in Indiana,” he said with a laugh earlier this week to MotorSportsTalk. “I consider myself a Hoosier.”

One of the first things that the newly-minted Hoosier did on that particular 1989 Memorial Day weekend was what countless Hoosiers have done religiously for years: It saw little Eddie, his brother and cousins sitting in the grandstands of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the 73rd Running of the Indianapolis 500,

Carpenter was cheering on his idol, Rick Mears, who took the green flag from the pole position for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

While he would be denied watching Mears win a record-tying fourth Indy 500 (that would come two years later), Carpenter – like the more than 250,000 other fans in attendance – was on the edge of his seat as Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi were locked in one of the closest battles in 500 history.

With less than two laps to go, both cars touched wheels, with Unser spinning into the wall and Fittipaldi going on to win the race.

“Al Jr. is a family friend, so that was highly emotional and something at the time really angered me,” Carpenter said. “But now as I look back, they were just racing the wheels off each other.”

It was then and there, on that sunny day, that little Eddie Carpenter vowed to not only become an IndyCar driver, but to one day hopefully win the Indy 500 himself.

He’s already accomplished the first part of that goal, with Sunday marking his 30th straight visit to the legendary 2.5-mile oval at 16th and Georgetown, the last 14 as a race car driver.

“I’ve been to every 500 since I moved to Indy,” said Carpenter, now 38. “It’s been a major part of my life for pretty much my whole life. That’s really what sparked the passion for me to be an Indy car driver.

“I just have so many great memories of Indy. The event means so much to me.”

But now, as he prepares for his 15th Indy 500, starting from the pole for the third time in the last six years, Carpenter still has the other part of his dream to accomplish: To win the 500, in his adopted hometown and in front of hundreds – if not thousands – of family and friends. And another 250,000 potential new fans if he takes the checkered flag on Sunday.

While Carpenter won’t directly come out and say this is his year to put his face and name on the Borg-Warner Trophy, there’s a sense, a feeling deep down inside that it may be the best opportunity he’s ever had.

“I think it’s always a big deal when an American wins the 500,” Carpenter said.

Since 1998, five Americans have won at Indy: Eddie Cheever in 1998, Buddy Rice in 2004, Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Alexander Rossi in 2016.

“But to have an Indy resident and essentially a Hoosier to win the race, I think, would make even a little more special,” Carpenter continued.

To say both Carpenter and the Indianapolis area are overdue for a win at the 500 is an understatement.

In fact, the last time an Indiana native won the 500 was Wilbur Shaw, who won the big race three times in four years (1937, 1939 and 1940). Shaw was born and raised in Shelbyville, Indiana, about 35 miles southeast of the Speedway.

That means a Hoosier has not gone to victory lane at Indy in 77 years.

“It’s been a good while,” Carpenter said. “The community involvement in the month of May and the Indianapolis 500 is a large part of what makes this event so special each and every year.

“The city of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 are really synonymous with one another. I certainly feel the local support all month and it would be an incredible feeling to have my hometown (have a local boy) win the 500.

“Being a local resident and member of the community, if I get the opportunity to win the race and be able celebrate in my hometown with the amount of friends and family in different parts of the community I’m involved with would just make it all that more special.”

Since earning the pole last Sunday, Carpenter has spent the last week imagining what tomorrow will be like when he leads the 33-car field across the starting line to start the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

“This is the third time I’ve won the pole, which puts me in some pretty elite company,” Carpenter said. “But having been through that process and knowing what to expect and understanding that makes it probably a little more of an advantage just because I’ve been through it before, know what’s coming and know what the feelings are going to be like on race morning.

“We’re just keeping our heads down as a team, focused on Sunday. That’s obviously the goal we’ve had the entire time, is to win this race, and (doing it from) the pole hopefully will be icing on top at the end of a successful month of May.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500