INDIANAPOLIS — There were no tears in Ed Carpenter’s eyes, though the sorrow was evident in his voice.
As he sat in the media center last May explaining how he felt to finish second in the Indianapolis 500, there was obvious pride for his team and the effort put forth to cross the famous yard of bricks just 3.1589 seconds behind first-time winner Will Power.
It was the highest finish for Carpenter in 16 starts in the biggest race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and just the third time he’s finished in the top 10. So there was plenty of reason to celebrate.
But there was also a sense of urgency.
No race lays a driver’s mortality bare more so than the Indy 500. And, for all his qualifying success at the Brickyard, the 38-year-old Carpenter is well aware the clock is ticking for him to reach victory lane.
Power and Carpenter were fourth and fifth on a crucial restart with seven laps to go in the 102nd running of the 500. As the two moved up through the field and the leaders headed to pit row, Power had just one thought in mind.
Stay in front of the No. 20 car.
“If he got by me,” Power said during his own media conference, “I would have thought it was game over.”
There’s no doubt Carpenter has unlocked a secret to finding speed at IMS. He’s started the 500 from the pole position three times, and he’ll make his fifth front-row start in the last seven years on Sunday after qualifying second behind Simon Pagenaud.
His teammates and employees in his self-owned operation — Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones — will start third and fourth respectively.
It’s another testament to the awesome qualifying strength of Ed Carpenter Racing and something for the team to take serious pride in.
But that’s not what gets a driver’s face engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
“I’m really maintaining focus on figuring out a way to win this race,” Carpenter said. “That’s the most important thing to me. One of the blessings of qualifying well here is we get a good starting spot. The negative is people ask me all the time, ‘hey, are you going to win the pole again this year?’ And it’s like, ‘well, that would be nice, but I really want to win the race.’ That’s the goal. I don’t want people to think all I come to do here is qualify because that’s definitely not the focus.”
Carpenter always was destined to be part of “this race.”
The stepson of Indy Racing League founder and former Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Tony George has called Indy home since the age of 8. He grew up around the fabled speedway and has been racing in its crown jewel event since 2003.
As much as Carpenter has loved the Indianapolis 500, like so many other drivers, it hasn’t always loved him back.
He’s seen his share of heartbreak at the 2.5-mile track, and he’s also come oh-so-close to feeling its ultimate triumph.
There are only so many realistic shots he has remaining at that ultimate prize.
This year feels as good as any.
The speed of Carpenter’s cars has been evident from the start of practice, and with three cars in the first two rows, the team should be able to take control of the early portions of the race.
Carpenter had no problem with that a year ago, leading the race’s first 30 laps and 65 overall — six more than Power.
The goal, of course, is to lead that final lap.
And it remains tantalizingly elusive.
Experience is one of the most valuable assets in the IMS paddock. But Carpenter has learned over the years not to dwell too much on the past.
“I try not to look back too much other than to learn from mistakes and figure out how to do things better,” Carpenter said. “Really just looking forward and trying to make the best decisions we can and prepare the best we can. I think that’s the important thing in how you get better. If you just reflect on all your misses and get discouraged by that, it’s probably not the best mindset.
“We’ve got a lot of great experience, and we’ve been getting closer and better, and hopefully, we’ll be able to put it together on Sunday for one of our cars.”