For Carpenter, driving on Indy 500 oval is truly coming home

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He’s still driven by the same ambition nurtured since childhood, when Ed Carpenter grew up watching race cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and dreaming of one day winning the Indianapolis 500.

The Verizon IndyCar Series’ only owner/driver has had 13 Indy 500 starts, won the pole twice and been a continual race contender. At 36, he sounds refreshed and ready for another run, although it’s still just April.

When inquiring minds question how much longer he intends to chase his ultimate goal, he shrugs.

“People ask me all the time, but I don’t know,” Carpenter said during last weekend’s Chevrolet test on the 2.5-mile oval to prepare for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month. “Couldn’t tell you. I’m still here.”

People can stop asking.

“It goes very fast,” he said of his career. “I don’t feel 36. I look it, I’m a little gray, but I don’t have any plans on going anywhere soon. If I’m fortunate enough to win the race this year, it’s not like I’m going to ride off into the sunset. I’ll be back either way.”

Ed Carpenter Racing has flourished with its headquarters around the corner from IMS on Speedway’s Main Street. Some names change, but it’s business as usual for an operation that relishes the challenge of taking on Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, among others.

JR Hildebrand, sixth in last year’s Indy 500 for ECR, has replaced Josef Newgarden, who parlayed three wins in two years and a career-best third in the Indy 500 for Carpenter into a Team Penske ride. Spencer Pigot returns to drive Carpenter’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on road/street courses while the boss sticks to ovals.

Hildebrand has witnessed a revitalized owner and teammate.

“He’s come out firing this year,” Hildebrand said. “I think he’s just ready to go out and kick some ass.”

Carpenter flashed a wry smile.

“I’m pretty spry,” he said.

The upbeat demeanor reaffirms Carpenter has put a humbling 2016 season behind him. He finished 31st in the last year’s Indianapolis 500 and his best finish in five oval starts was 18th. It’s the first time he’s not had a top-10 finish in a season, aside from his three initial Verizon IndyCar Series starts at the end of 2003. Granted, he’s not running a full season, but the expectations don’t change.

“Last year was a hard year,” he said. “I thought we were prepared as a team and did a good job and the cars were good. I was happy with the cars, we just didn’t get results, especially when I was in the car. It was frustrating, but you can’t let years affect you from a confidence standpoint.

“I personally went into the offseason and worked as hard as I’ve ever worked to get ready to make sure I was in shape for this – mentally, physically, emotionally – be ready for whatever is thrown my way. I’m excited for this season.”

Carpenter has endured his share of humbling Indy 500 results before, which just seems to make him more determined, if that’s possible. Carpenter has finished in the top 10 three times in his most important race, with a best of fifth in 2008 with Vision Racing, and placed 11th three times.

Carpenter’s three career wins came on ovals, the most recent at Texas Motor Speedway in 2014. Since 2011, he’s had nine top-five finishes on ovals. Carpenter the team owner is convinced Carpenter the driver is better suited for those tracks, hence Pigot’s chance to drive street/road courses in the No. 20.

Carpenter insists he doesn’t press despite not driving in each race.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “This year is better than other years because (I) actually have a race (at Phoenix) before we get (to IMS). The way the month of May is, you’re on the track early enough with enough laps that you can’t rush into it anyway because you’ll wear yourself out.”

As he stood in Gasoline Alley waiting to test on the renowned Brickyard oval, Carpenter couldn’t have sounded more enthused on a chilly afternoon. Just as when he was a kid, the adopted son of IMS board chairman Tony George said there’s no place he’d rather be.

“I’m just excited to be here,” he said. “It’s easy to get out of bed on a morning when you know you’re coming to the speedway.”

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