IndyCar's only driver/owner still tries to avoid the publicity spotlight, but also avoids creating political storms in public. Instead, his focus is on steering CFH Racing to greater glory
How many times have we heard the cliché about racecar drivers who are sweet as pumpkin pie outside the cockpit, and then grow horns underneath their crash helmets? Well, the truth is, it’s tautological to even mention that whole Bruce-Banner-turns-Incredible-Hulk transformation. That’s just part of being a pro racer.
But Ed Carpenter is somehow different again. Sure, as a driver you still won’t like him when he’s angry – his reaction to the piss ‘n’ vinegar-fueled driving of Sage Karam at Iowa was a recent obvious reminder. But Carpenter’s demeanor when the adrenaline has returned to normal is of a calmness quite unusual among top line racers. Despite winning pole at the Indy 500 for two straight years as a driver, despite scoring six wins as a team owner, he still looks surprised when people ask him for autographs and often looks more shy about the exchange than the fan.
“Ed already behaves like one of the more professional team owners,” commented the late Justin Wilson one day late in 2011, just before the new Ed Carpenter Racing team was confirmed. “Never gets overexcited and keeps his thoughts to himself.” Two years later, ECR was again on Wilson’s radar as he was among the many who suspected the squad would be expanding to two cars for 2014. “That could be a very interesting ride, couldn’t it?” mused Justin. “They seem to be doing everything right – not rushing things and gathering some strong staff together…”
As it transpired, that very ethos meant ECR remained a one-car team in 2014, but with Ed doing only the oval races, and Mike Conway, no longer interested in racing ovals, taking over for all the street and road course events. And the strategy paid off: No. 20 car collected three victories – two for Conway, one for Carpenter – and in the wake of this success, Ed merged his team with Sarah Fisher/Wink Hartman’s squad to form Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing last fall. By doing that, Ed finally had his two-car team and one that contained fourth-season SFHR incumbent, Josef Newgarden. Ed continued in the No. 20 in 2015, with relative series newcomer Luca Filippi taking over Conway’s duties as the Briton headed off to Toyota’s World Endurance Championship team.
Newgarden – a championship contender
Despite the typical upheaval involved in a merger, CFHR barely lost momentum this past season; Newgarden finished seventh in the championship standings and scored the first two wins of his career. Naturally, that brought him to the attention of the bigger teams, and Honda was known to be interested in wresting the American away from the Chevrolet-powered squads. However, he’s stayed put for 2016, and his team co-owner is relieved.
“It was a priority to sign Josef before last season, and it was a priority again this year,” Carpenter states. “The drivers I view as potential championship contenders, year in, year out, can be counted on one hand, and I believe we have one of them, so we’re not going to let him go. It’s no different than having a franchise-type quarterback in the NFL: if you’ve got an Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you do whatever you can to keep them.
“The drivers I view as championship contenders, year in, year out, can be counted on one hand, and I believe we have one of them"
“There are a lot of talented guys in IndyCar, don’t get me wrong, but with how young Josef is relative to the level he’s been driving at… You don’t want to break up a winning combination. So I know how much competition we had out there and how hard I worked to get the deal done, but Josef is happy here, we’re certainly happy to have him and for someone as young as he is, he’s very loyal and also has an ability to think long-term.”
While Carpenter is appreciative of who he’s got in the cockpit, he’s rightfully proud, too, that Newgarden can regard CFH Racing as more than just a fallback option. Race engineer Jeremy Milless and the team’s entire engineering lineup turned the No. 67 entry into a regular contender for victory in 2015, as Ed observes.
“At Barber Motorsports Park we had the best car for pretty much the whole race,” he recalls, “and the Toronto win was great in that again I think we had the best two cars on race day, and they finished 1-2. But some of our strongest races were ones we didn’t win. At Iowa, Milwaukee and Pocono, we were very fast, and so I think as the year went on we kept getting stronger. Showing winning form at every type of track, I felt, was probably more impressive than just the wins and the pole.”
Form and function
Translating more of that form into hard results has to be on the agenda for next year. CFHR took criticism – some fair, some less so – for not yet running at the level of the big teams in terms of its trackside operation in 2015. At Milwaukee, polesitter Newgarden plummeted down the order after a tardy pit stop, and at Iowa a sharper strategy could have seen Josef visit Victory Lane again. You could argue that all the teams made fundamental fumbles, and that partly explains why no driver bar Scott Dixon won more than two races. But with a breathless media and fanbase anxious to see drivers (American ones in particular) break the championship stranglehold of Ganassi/Penske/Andretti, anything that prevented that occurrence was blown up into a huge deal.
Overlooked in such criticism is that Josef and CFHR had earned the position to fight for victory, which goes back to what Ed mentioned earlier – that consistency of form.
This is the first proper off-season for this team. Last winter was all about the merger… Now we have a chance to focus on proper tech development
“You know it’s always easier to second guess strategy afterwards than it is to make those decisions in the heat of the moment,” smiles Carpenter. “I can tell you first-hand that the races I spend not in the car, I better appreciate the challenge of managing strategy from the timing stand! Having said that, yes I do think we can improve as a crew in the pits, to get to the level of Dixon’s guys who year after year seem to be the most consistent group. But I also think that outside of the Barber win, we started the year a little too slow, so there are improvements to be made everywhere.
“Now’s our chance to do that because this is the first proper off-season for this team. Last winter was all about the merger with Sarah’s team, and that took a lot of our energy and focus and time. It wasn’t a quick process because we had to study all the resources, figure out what each group had done well and make decisions accordingly. Now we have a chance to focus on proper tech development and so I’ve got high expectations of taking a step forward next year in terms of car performance.”
The one-car/two-car debate
When team co-owner Wink Hartman admitted at the season finale that low oil prices – he owns the Hartman Oil brand seen on the sidepods of Newgarden’s car – were going to severely affect his ability to invest in CFHR for 2016, speculation was rife. Would the team run just one full-time car entry, with the No. 20 just being wheeled out for Ed to drive in the oval races? That seemed to make sense, since his road course ringer Filippi had looked reasonably quick, but also expensive in terms of the incident:result ratio.
“It’s October – anything’s a possibility at this point,” says Carpenter. “But my intention is that next year the team will look a whole lot like it did this year, with two full-time cars. And to be fair, I wasn’t unhappy with Luca. I did think it took him a little time to get comfortable, but when the only tracks in 2015 that he’d raced on before were Toronto and Mid-Ohio, and he was really strong at both of those. So if you were to see him back next year, I think you’d see more consistency from knowing the tracks.
Luca made some mistakes, yes, but so did we… and there was bad luck involved, too. On paper, his results look worse than they actually felt to us
Carpenter on Filippi
“For as competitive as this series is, you don’t need to be off by much to look quite bad. Luca made some mistakes, yes, but so did we… and there was bad luck involved, too. On paper, his results look worse than they actually felt to us. We felt Luca was a great teammate, a great guy and a talented driver. We enjoyed working with him.”
Whichever driver gets to turn right in the No. 20 next season, Carpenter assures us he has no intention of slashing his left-turn-only schedule to just his beloved Indy 500. “This wasn’t the best year of driving for me,” he admits, “but at the same time, when I’m racing is when I feel most happy so I don’t want to wait 364 days between races!”
IndyCar’s oval racing struggles
Nonetheless, Carpenter’s driving schedule will be reduced anyway as IndyCar struggle to make oval racing a commercial hit. For 2016, Fontana and Milwaukee have gone, and only one oval is likely to be added – Phoenix International Raceway.
“Yeah, it’s a disappointing situation,” Ed sighs. “I think the series management back in 2011, when it rented the Las Vegas track and tried to promote the race, set a damaging precedent. I realize that part of management isn’t around now, but the whole method of working upset other tracks and promoters, so since then it’s been an uphill battle. I think relationships are being rebuilt now, but it’s still a challenge.
“For me, I was disappointed to see Fontana go – I thought that was a very good track for IndyCar, and it always put on a strong show. It’s been hard to get the attendance there but at the same time I think you can make the argument that this year’s event was the best race of the season, it had really good TV figures and it helped boost the numbers for the rest of the races. At the same time, the prospect of Phoenix coming back is great, and I think IndyCar recognizes the importance of having several ovals on the schedule. It’s not like they’re just letting them go.”
What we do is expensive whether there are aero kits or not, and I think as team owners, none of us is going to be happy until he or she is actually making money
Like Wilson observed four years ago, Carpenter doesn’t tend to become “political” in public, however much he fights for his team’s territory behind the scenes. For example, he carefully treads the middle ground on the hot topic of aero kits, which brought increased technical interest and brand identity for Chevrolet and Honda in 2015, but which also attracted condemnation from many other team owners, mainly for the increased costs.
“It’s hard to quantify the benefits compared with the costs,” shrugs Carpenter. “What we do is expensive whether there are aero kits or not, and I think as team owners, none of us is going to be happy until he or she is actually making money, rather than just trying to survive. With that perspective in mind, it’s not fair to say the aero kits were a failure, even though there were expenses that were unforeseen. Chasing updates through the year to make sure the cars were as safe as they could be – stuff like that was somewhat out of our control.
“What you can say is that IndyCar had another strong season. The racing was good yet again, and I think we had momentum toward the end of the year in terms of attendance and TV ratings. Was that because of the aero kits, or despite them? I’d rather be patient and judge the situation as it stabilizes over the next couple of years.”
Manufacturer balance of power
Carpenter takes a less mild view of the now infamous Rule 9.3 which, should it be invoked by IndyCar, will allow Honda a chance to revise more areas of its draggy aero kit in an attempt to catch Chevrolet. He feels HPD’s deficit, at least by season’s end, was overstated.
There was a Honda driver in strong contention for the championship at the final round. Honda's deficit wasn’t like the Lotus situation in 2012!
Carpenter on IndyCar Rule 9.3
“Of course, I’m a proud Chevrolet runner, so I think they should be rewarded for their efforts in getting it right,” Ed declares. “The onus is now on IndyCar, who have more information from both companies than I or any of the team owners do, to make the right decision according to how imbalanced they see it. You can make arguments on paper that the advantage was X or Y, but the fact is that there was a Honda driver [Graham Rahal] in strong contention for the championship at the last race of the year. I mean, Honda's deficit wasn’t like the Lotus situation in 2012!
“I do understand the big picture, so generally I’m fine with adjustments that keep the situation where any driver can go out and win. But I honestly do feel it was that way in the second half of last year. So my big fear now is that opening up the situation for one manufacturer could swing things too far their way, so that next season we have the same situation the other way around, so there’ll be yet more adjustments next winter…
“Personally, I think we’ve had really good racing the past four seasons with the DW12, with both manufacturers winning championships and Indy 500s and both manufacturers being in the championship battle to the very last round. I’m not sure you can realistically get the performance between two manufacturers more balanced than that.”
Carpenter makes a strong case in the same manner that Sarah Fisher, her husband Andy O’Gara and Wink Hartman have made a strong team – through rational thought processes that are driven by, but not clouded by, passion for the sport. And generally, that type of attitude characterizes the leaders of the best teams in any form of racing.
Given that Ed’s also a proven realist, if he says CFH Racing can take a further step toward the twin peaks of IndyCar glory – the Indy 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series championship – it would be smart to believe him.