IRL: Michigan Speedway homecoming for Carpentier

MIS RETURN LIKE HOMECOMING FOR CARPENTIER BROOKLYN, Mich.-Although he put his name on the motorsports map by dominating on road courses en route to racing's big leagues, Patrick Carpentier discovered he had a real penchant for racing on...


BROOKLYN, Mich.-Although he put his name on the motorsports map by dominating on road courses en route to racing's big leagues, Patrick Carpentier discovered he had a real penchant for racing on high-speed ovals.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact he had once been that Canadian national junior champion in speed skating. At a very young age, he was racing on ovals-albeit ice-covered ones.

Of course, the friendly French-Canadian with the ever-present smile found that he also had talent in auto racing once he took it up in 1985. After the usual training in go-karts and Formula Fords, he moved up to Formula Atlantic, always a favorite with Canadian racing fans, thanks mainly to the antics of Gilles Villeneuve.

In what many considered to be the final step before Indy cars, Carpentier would match his legendary countryman, capturing nine of 12 events (eight on road circuits) and winning the Toyota Atlantic crown in 1996. People were calling him "the next Villeneuve" and he parlayed that success into a full-time champ-car ride with Tony Bettenhausen for 1997.

Carpentier's rookie season would prove to be a mixed bag as he turned in his best performances on ovals while struggling on road courses. Despite those struggles, at the end of the season, he would emerge as top rookie in a class that included now Andretti-Green driver Dario Franchitti.

Racer Magazine even honored him as "Most Promising Oval Track Racer." After all, his best result did come at St. Louis where he nearly pulled out a victory for the Bettenhausen team before fellow Canadian Paul Tracy overhauled him with two laps to go. Carpentier had been forced to conserve fuel and could not hold off the charging Tracy.

For Carpentier, it seemingly established a future pattern of near-miss results and while he continued to be among the quickest on ovals, his road-course performances also showed marked improvement.

Over the years, however Carpentier would win a number of races, but in the process, he has decided he prefers the ovals. Hence, the move this season to the IRL IndyCar Series and a schedule of events dominated by oval-track venues.

So far, a third at Richmond and Nashville and a seventh at Milwaukee last week, have been Carpentier's best result with Team Red Bull Cheever, but the high banks of Michigan International Speedway beckon with the July 31 Firestone Indy 400. Besides, he's happy with the switch.

"I did a lot of road course and street circuit with the other guys (Champ Car)," Carpentier said in a recent IndyCar Series teleconference. "I had a great time, too. Champ Car was a good series, gave me the experience to run with these guys (in IRL) at the front. I had a good time, you know, for the rest of it. I'm very happy about the decision I made. I feel like home where I'm at right now.

"For me, the oval * is something. Maybe because of speed skating when I was really young, I've been turning on ovals all my life. That's what I want to end up my career on, with a few road course (events) here and there, which I think is a good thing, and that's what I want to do."

Of course, MIS holds a lot of fond memories for Carpentier. It was the site of his first-ever open-wheel victory, a last-lap thriller in 2001 when he outlasted Franchitti and Michel Jourdain Jr. to record a most elusive win.

"For sure, it's a track that we had good success," Carpentier continued. "Actually, the race didn't start too well. (I) lost a couple of laps and came back and ended up winning the race. It was all about team effort."

Carpentier started 21st that day for Player's-Forsythe Racing and led only three of the race's 250 laps. However, they happened to be the last three laps of the race and with a boost from teammate Alex Tagliani, Carpentier was able to hold onto a rather precarious lead. After starting 21st, it was the farthest back a driver has won an open-wheel race in MIS history.

"I'm really looking forward to going back to Michigan," Carpentier added. "It's a beautiful place, and it's a fast track. You can run a lot of side by side. There's a lot of action."

Carpentier provided a lot of action in his initial visit to MIS in 1997.

After misplacing his credential on race day, the French-Canadian managed to convince a Michigan State Trooper that he was driving in the Michigan 500 and needed immediate admittance to the track. The obliging trooper gave Carpentier a police escort and got him into the paddock with the morning warm-up session only minutes away.

Undeterred by what should have been an unnerving experience, Carpentier managed to collect himself and then turned in one of his best drives of the year.

Starting 12th in the Alumax Reynard/Mercedes, Carpentier took advantage of Bettenhausen's knowledge of MIS and slowly moved up in the standings. On Lap 130, he took over the lead for the first time and appeared to be in control of the race. Carpentier looked more like a veteran than a rookie and for 14 laps he stayed out in front. Then the engine malfunctioned in a telltale plume of white smoke and his impressive run was over.

Races like the '97 Michigan 500 would continue to haunt Carpentier for the next four years. In the meantime, Carpentier always ran well at MIS, recording the fastest race laps in 1998 and 2001.

But it was the 2001 victory at MIS that seemed to exorcise those demons. Victories would follow at Cleveland and Mid-Ohio in 2002 and Laguna Seca (2003 and 2004). Carpentier would also prove to be adept at scoring points-paying finishes and finishing third in the final Champ Car standings in 2002 and 2004.

Currently, he stands 10th in the points for the IRL's IndyCar Series (one spot ahead of Danica Patrick), but after making the initial transition, he feels he has found a home.

"This year was a bit of a shock, honestly," Carpentier maintained. "It's extremely competitive. The cars have a little bit less power and more downforce than what I had at Champ Car. So all the details and the gears and everything that you prepare has tremendous importance.

"So it's a bit different in that sense, and a matter of getting used to it and learning how to drive the cars--the way they are.

"To me, you have to drive these cars really, really on the edge in order to run well. So you have to use everything the car has, engine-wise. So it's been a bit different.

"But I'm very happy. Especially the (race at Richmond)--that's the reason why I came to the IRL. I wanted to do the (Indianapolis) 500, but I wanted also to race more ovals. So for me coming to this series, that's what I was expecting--you know, battling wheel to wheel at the front, then getting passed and passing some guys.

"It was a fun show. For me inside the car, there was a moment in the race that I was laughing I was having such a good time. That's why I switched."

He's still smiling, but the upcoming Firestone Indy 400 offers him the opportunity to flash a different kind of smile-that of a race winner.


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Patrick Carpentier , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Gilles Villeneuve , Tony Bettenhausen , Danica Patrick , Michel Jourdain