AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ed Carpenter Racing is staking claim as a force to be reckoned with for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The team finished 1-2 on the overall speed chart for the Phoenix Raceway open test practice that concluded Saturday night. JR Hildebrand timed in at 193.234 mph (19.0401 seconds) in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet followed by team owner/driver Ed Carpenter in the sister No. 20 Fuzzy’s entry after two days of practice for all 21 full-season entries on the 1.022-mile oval.
Hildebrand’s lap was faster than the official track record of 192.631 mph held by Helio Castroneves; however, lap records can only be set during qualifying and races. Hildebrand did crash late in Saturday night’s practice after damaging his front wing when he ran up too close behind the car of Will Power, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the ECR team with the overall results.
Carpenter, again driving only the ovals on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, is looking to rebound from a 2016 season that saw him run up front nearly every time but finish no better than 18th in the five races he drove. He highlighted last year’s Phoenix Grand Prix when he qualified fifth and was trying to pass Power for second when his car pushed up the track and pounded the Turn 4 wall on Lap 196.
The plan this year is to build on and complete that performance when the series returns for the race on April 29 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“I knew when we left here last year that we left a lot on the table,” said Carpenter, entering his 15th season. “I made a mistake that took us out of the race.
“We have high expectations and want to build around that, be good each and every session that we’re out there. Most importantly, we want to leave here feeling like we’re prepared for the race, feeling that we’re better off than where we were last year. We were good last year, but don’t know that for sure if we had a winning car, so we need to be a little better.”
Hildebrand, competing fulltime in the Verizon IndyCar Series for the first time since 2012 and who has never raced at the track, suggested that filling in for former ECR driver Josef Newgarden at an Iowa Speedway last season really helped with his transition.
“I think being able to jump in at Iowa this last year was really helpful for me coming here, just to have a little bit of a (baseline),” said Hildebrand, 29. “Phoenix is different, but it's more similar to Iowa than it used to be I think in a lot of ways, and just giving me a chance to get on the short oval aero package and kind of understand what the team's setup kind of dynamic is, I guess.
“Definitely helped for me to just get up to speed more quickly that I had that little bit of familiarity with it.”
Hildebrand’s results during the oval test were not all that surprising to his car owner.
“He’s performed the way I expected him to,” said Carpenter, 35, a three-time race winner. “This is the type of place that he’s going to excel. He’s run really well for us at Indy. When he tested for us at Iowa last year, which is a short oval, he did a fantastic job. I think where it’s going to take him a little bit more time to get back in the flow is the street courses and the more technical places, but I think he’s going to be up for the challenge.”
That transition could be made easier by a newcomer in Hildebrand’s race engineer, Justin Taylor – who came over from Audi’s World Endurance Championship program and had never prepped a car for an oval track prior to Friday.
“Justin is my primary engineer this year,” Hildebrand said. “It's been great working with him so far. He and I have got along really well right from the beginning.
“I'm living out in Boulder (Colorado), he's from Denver originally, he's an American guy. It's been cool working with him, just kind of off the bat, I guess. There are definitely some differences, but I think as Ed would back me up on this, having guys come in that have had the level of success that he has at teams like that, despite the fact that the teams are very different. … he brings kind of a fresh perspective on things, which I think is something that's good and keeps all of us honest in terms of just the normal way that we go about thinking about what we're doing.
“But it feels like he's having fun with it. Obviously he's got a great team to work with to get up to speed in situations like this. Which frankly, this is our first time on track working together, his first time ever running a car on an oval. A little bit of a baptism of fire.”