Carpenter strikes balance of life and pursuit of Indianapolis 500 victory

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INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter is immersed again, which also means he needs an escape.

An evening excursion to shop for groceries takes his mind off the magnitude of preparing for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday. The store is mostly empty on a Sunday night as Carpenter, a married father of three, breaks away ever so briefly from the challenge that awaits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Some guys might say that’s a distraction,” Carpenter said of shopping, “but I think that’s how you keep balanced because I do all this and work so hard for my family.”

In much the same manner the Verizon IndyCar Series’ only owner/driver runs through a checklist detailing every aspect of trying to improve his car, he recites his most recent grocery haul: Three Lunchables for son Ryder, strawberries, watermelon, grapes, a half-pound of oven-roasted turkey breast, bread, a couple gallons of milk, iced tea, chocolate chip cookies for the kids and waffles.

“The guy saw me in the checkout and was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Carpenter said. “They don’t usually recognize me. I’m usually an 8:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday shopper. I like that time.”

Two-time Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Carpenter qualified in the middle of the front row for the 2017 race in his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, turning a four-lap average of 231.664 mph. This will be his 14th attempt to earn the 500 victory that has eluded him.

It’s more than just a race. It’s a life-long pursuit that has a hold on him.

“This place is consuming,” Carpenter said of IMS. “It’s what always motivated me; it’s what made me want to be an Indy car driver. It’s hard not to feel the enormity of it and the pressure there is to win just because of all the years of effort that have gone into it.

“It’s work-balancing it, making that pressure and consuming mindset and attitude productive, and not counter-productive because of how bad you want something. The amount it consumes you can also make it easy to make poor decisions trying to grasp for it. I’m trying to use that passion and drive to make the right decisions, better decisions than we’ve made in the past, to be prepared for Sunday.”

“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” isn’t more important to him than to everyone else. He’s grown tired of that presumption. The topic is continually broached because he grew up in Indianapolis with a deep family connection to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the adopted son of Tony George, chairman of Hulman & Company, which owns IMS and INDYCAR.

Carpenter addressed that again this week.

“Just from my family situation, being here, there’s an assumption that maybe it means more to me than other people,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is it’s the Indianapolis 500, and the importance of this race, the worldwide significance, that’s why (two-time Formula One champion Fernando) Alonso is here, that’s why I’m here.

“This race is what made me want to be a race car driver. I think all of us are extremely passionate about it. For myself, it would be how I could define my career, but the same can be said for everyone else, too.”

His best Indy 500 finish was fifth in 2008, but he’s endured more heartaches than glory. The heart heals and the setbacks motivate him to work harder each time he returns.

Carpenter, at 36, is as level-headed as ever about his objective. He also visualizes what it would be like to finally earn that coveted trip to victory lane, swig that bottle of milk and have his likeness etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“I think about winning this race all year long, especially during the month (of May) when you’re confident and have a good car,” he said. “For me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You’ve got to truly believe that you can do it. I do believe I have what it takes to win this race. I believe that I have the team behind me and the car to do it, as well.”

But there are times when he can’t stop his mind from racing about racing. He’ll come home tired from another long day at the track, engage in conversation with his wife, Heather, but his thoughts inevitably drift back to ongoing race preparations.

“I’ll be able to turn it off for a few minutes, then lay down, and you start churning again,” Carpenter said. “My engineer (Matt Barnes) and I talk way too late every night. You can push too hard. Or I’ll call him to ask what he’s worked on since we talked an hour ago.”

Heather understands. It’s May.

“She tries to make things as easy as she can for me this month because she knows how hard you have to work to accomplish wins here, the kind of dedication it takes,” he said. “It’s kind of like (NBA Hall of Famer) Larry Bird’s quote: ‘Any time you think about leaving the gym, you think about someone else out there practicing.’

“That’s kind of how I feel when it comes to leaving the garage every night or when I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and think, ‘I could go back to sleep for a little bit,’ or ‘I can get in there and talk to the guys and try to figure out how to make our car better.’ I just want to be here.”

Ideally, he’ll exhaust enough energy in the month to be able to sleep soundly the night before the race. That hasn’t always been the case, though.

“I’ve had 500s where I slept perfect and through the night, and I’ve had others when I’ve tossed and turned a little bit,” he said. “Usually, I’m tired. This month is a tiring month. Usually, I don’t have a problem falling asleep. The problem is staying asleep or going back to sleep if you do wake up.

“That’s kind of what I hope for the most, that I do sleep until at least the (6 a.m.) cannon goes off (at IMS to signal that gates are open). The first time I wake up, then I’m looking out the window to see what the weather is, I’m looking at some flags to see which way the wind is going, the mind gets going. Hopefully I’ll sleep well.”

Hopefully, one day, Carpenter can rest after this consuming mission is accomplished.

“I can’t tell you how I’m going to react when it happens,” he said. “I’m sure there would be more emotion out of me than you would normally see.”

And perhaps Carpenter can skip grocery shopping that Sunday night.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500. Live coverage begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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