INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Every night this week has something different in store for Ed Carpenter.
There was the appearance with golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, whose spirits brand sponsors his car, at a liquor store Monday night. There was a celebrity bartending turn at a posh steakhouse Wednesday night. More appearances were scheduled around Indianapolis on Thursday and Friday.
It comes with being the hometown hero, the kid who spent his childhood racing around Gasoline Alley, went to school at Butler University and dreamed of winning at the Brickyard.
It also comes with sitting on the pole for the Indy 500.
But if there is anybody who can deal with all the commotion, it may be Carpenter, with his unflappable nature and aw-shucks attitude. Ernie Els may be known as the Big Easy for the golfer’s laidback demeanor, but a fitting moniker for Carpenter might simply be, “Easy Ed.”
“It’s a busy week, and a fun week,” Carpenter told The Associated Press while rushing between appearances, where he’s signed so many autographs his hand must have hurt. “But when you’re on the front row, it can end up putting some unwarranted pressure on you.”
Carpenter wasn’t always so placid. He had quite a temper when he was younger, a fiery streak that still occasionally flares up when he’s in the midst of a tense race.
But the stepson of series founder Tony George, whose family traces its roots to the purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War II, Carpenter made a conscious effort to change. Having kids was a part of it — he wanted to be a role model for Makenna, Ryder and Cruz.
“When I was younger, I didn’t control my emotions well enough,” Carpenter explained. “It’s something I’ve tried to get better at as I’ve gotten older, not only in racing but life. My family and kids have made me a lot better person and in turn made me a better driver.”
There are other reasons the 33-year-old Carpenter has been able to deal with the chaos that surrounds the pole. For one thing, he went through this entire exercise a year ago.
Back then, he was a one-car team — he’s added a second car driven by J.R. Hildebrand this year. And when he landed on the pole, it came as a surprise to him as much as anybody.
When he looks back at the entire race week, he realizes everything was a bit overwhelming.
“It was so exciting last year because going into qualifying I wasn’t really eying the pole,” said Carpenter, who went on to finish 10th in the race. “This year we knew Day 1 we had a fast car, so you go for it. Especially after last year. You set your sights higher. It’s a different experience this time. I would have been more disappointed if we didn’t win the pole.”
Even though Carpenter is only the 11th driver to win back-to-back poles, he is keenly aware that starting on the front doesn’t mean he’ll finish there. Last year taught him that.
Or, as Juan Pablo Montoya said recently, “The pole doesn’t put your face on the trophy.”
Carpenter has also brushed aside any concerns he is stepping into the car for the first time this season. He gave up full-time driver status at the end of last year to focus on ovals, where he is at his best, with Mike Conway driving his car on road and street courses.
The decision has paid off. Conway won at Long Beach in April.
“I think that was a brilliant move,” said rival James Hinchcliffe, who will start alongside Carpenter in the middle of the front row on Sunday. “His oval credentials don’t need to be highlighted. They speak for themselves. Road racing wasn’t his forte.”
He’s an ace on ovals, though, so Carpenter isn’t concerned that he hasn’t started a race in seven months. He coolly points out that nobody else has raced on an oval since then, either.
In fact, the only time Carpenter’s calm begins to crack is when he talks about winning at Indy. His voice becomes excitable, the words spilling out a little more quickly. He has imagined pulling into Victory Lane too many times to count, envisioning himself hugging the Borg-Warner Trophy and sipping from that cold bottle of milk.
“It’s special to most drivers that are here,” he said, “and with my family connections to it, my dad — he always felt like he was a steward of this event, and that’s who his grandpa was, and I kind of want to be the same way. But it’s hugely important to all of us, everyone.”
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