IRL: Rookies rarin' to go to Indy

IRL: Rookies rarin' to go to Indy

The month of May is fast approaching and, next Monday Indy Racing League IndyCar Series newcomers will undertake their Rookie Orientation Program prior to opening day for the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Mark Taylor and Ed ...

The month of May is fast approaching and, next Monday Indy Racing League IndyCar Series newcomers will undertake their Rookie Orientation Program prior to opening day for the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Mark Taylor and Ed Carpenter.
Photo by Hiroshi Yamamura.

Two first-time IndyCar Series drivers who need little introduction to the 2.5-mile oval are last year's Futaba Freedom 100 winner Ed Carpenter and Mark Taylor, who finished third in that race and won the 2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series championship. Just returned from the Twin Ring Motegi race last weekend, this duo is raring to go testing on the smooth, Brickyard circuit.

Ed Carpenter, driver of the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet has a best finish of 12th (at the Homestead-Miami season opener) to show for himself since joining the IRL's premier series. While not brash enough to brag that he'll repeat as an Indy winner, Carpenter is looking forward to the month of May and the ability to test the League's new 3-liter engines for a good period of time.

New IRL rules prohibit in-season testing, making it more difficult for rookies like Carpenter and Taylor to get acclimated to their new rides. "I'm looking forward to testing next Monday and learning more about the 3- liter Chevy Indy V8 (that he'll be driving for the balance of the season). I haven't had a chance to test it yet, but I'm sure it'll be a pretty steep learning curve," Carpenter acknowledged.

"Indy is the toughest track to drive on our [16-race] schedule," he noted. "I'm glad I spent two years in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series. Those cars are down in power and have little downforce compared to the Indy cars, so it's going to be a big adjustment," Carpenter related.

Ed came to the Menards Infiniti Pro Series from USAC sprint cars and, while he "loves that type of racing, I have goals to accomplish here." Driving the sprints, Carpenter would race two or three times each week, so the lag between Indy races has got him anxious to get onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. "I'd still love to test a sprint car again and I'd like to take Alex [teammate Barron] with me."

Growing up just a few blocks from the site of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, Ed Carpenter is able to walk to the track each day. It's safe to say driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a long-time goal for this Hoosier. "I always wanted to participate in the Indianapolis 500 and now it's just a week away. I'm focused 100% on getting my goals accomplished there."

Ed Carpenter.
Photo by Hiroshi Yamamura.
Any newcomer to Indy wants to garner the recognition that comes with being Bank One Rookie of the Year at the 500, and Ed Carpenter is no different. Coming to the race with a team owner who has notched a victory as Eddie Cheever did in 1998, with a team that aced the Pit Stop Challenge last year (as his team did), Carpenter realizes it's time for the Red Bull team to "get back to winning."

Carpenter's current teammate, Alex Barron was co-rookie of the year in 2002 and will be making his third attempt to quaff the winner's bottle of milk on May 30th. That successful experience should come in handy as Carpenter tries to understand the nuances of racing on this tough track.

"Experience will help the veterans this month," as every driver comes to grip with new engine - and likely new chassis rules - imposed by the Indy Racing League in order to stop the recent instances of flying cars. "I've never been there so I have no background, but having veterans and winners like Alex and Eddie should help. I believe I won the Infiniti Pro Series race at Indy because I had A.J.'s [Foyt] experience to guide me."

Carpenter knows he's got to treat Indy like "just another race", even though it'll likely be the most difficult part of the month of May. Handling race day, "I will probably prep myself all month for that to be ready," Ed said of the walk from Gasoline Alley to view the multitude of fans on site to watch the largest single-day sporting event in the world.

While he doesn't remember the first time he went to the Indy 500, Ed Carpenter does have memories of following the career of Al Unser Jr., who was the best man at his parents' wedding. "I always kept track of Al Jr., and of A.J. and Eddie" when the latter two were driving in the 500. Being around the race all his life, Carpenter has an idea of what Indy means, and can't wait to get on the circuit once again.

Mark Taylor's approach to the month of May comes from a totally different perspective, as the Briton spent his first year in the United States working to gain the Menards Infiniti Pro Series title. Having accomplished that feat, he moved up to the IndyCar Series with the help of John Menard, who merged his team with Panther Racing. This season, Taylor is driving the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet and working once more with the Panther squad that helped him gain last year's IPS title.

Taylor, too, has a best finish of 12th in the first three races of the 2004 season, at Phoenix International Raceway in March. This rookie was running 6th last weekend at Twin Ring Motegi before he crashed out of that race.

"It's good experience to do a month at Indy because it's such a step up from the Menards Infiniti Pro Series," Taylor admitted. While he hasn't been in an Indy car on the famed 2.5-mile Brickyard oval, Taylor did watch the initial test of 3-liter engines the first Saturday of this month. "You go into the turns much quicker" in the Indy car, he believes, "but I guess I'll find that out on Monday, right?

Mark Taylor.
Photo by Hiroshi Yamamura.
"This is a good point of the year as we rookies will have some time in our cars to get them working well," Taylor said. The Indy Racing League has banished in-season testing, so the only trackside work Taylor [and Carpenter] have been able to get is at each of the three race circuits where the League has competed in 2004. There were also four open test days prior to the start of the 16-race campaign.

Taylor has "realistic goals for the Indianapolis 500. It's a very tough race and I'd be happy to run up front if we have good pace and get the car working well" on May 30th. Wise beyond his 26 years, Mark realizes that "the winner needs a portion of luck here. The competition level is very, very high in this series and has been for a number of years. A top-five finish would be a major achievement for me," he understands.

"The stature of drivers who have come to race at Indy helped me become aware of the race early" in life. "It was about the same [on his radar screen] as the Formula One race Monaco and the British Grand Prix, which were the initial focus of my career. I wanted to broaden my horizons and realized that the quality as well as quantity of drivers who come to race in the Indy 500 is excellent."

The most recent UK driver to influence Taylor in his quest to run the Indy 500 was Nigel Mansell, who came to the Brickyard oval for the first time in 1993, finishing third, racing only for two years. "When Nigel came here, it was big news in England," and Taylor is hoping to contribute his own news stories this May.

At this point, Taylor wishes he "had more time in the car with testing because I'm just now starting to get comfortable in the car. I have to learn each new track and it's been tough. I've got to keep my confidence up now. I know what the car is like and I have to make sure I don't do too much," in setting it up for Indy, or any track for that matter.

One reason why the Twin Ring Motegi round gave Taylor added confidence was the presence of his new spotter Tom Sneva, whom Taylor hopes will stick around to the end of the year. "I hope Tom continues through this year. He did a great job in the Japanese race. He is able to tell me what's going on ahead where I can't see and he helps my timing a lot so I can get a move made." Sneva, of course is the 1983 Indy 500 champion.

These two rookies, each coming from the Menards Infiniti Pro Series have one other thing in common, as they've got a former Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner to guide them in Eddie Cheever (for Carpenter) and Taylor, working with Sneva. That experience may help them get closer to the front, but it'll be each driver's innate talent that will pave the way to the yard of bricks and victory in the 88th Indy 500 on May 30th.

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mark Taylor , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Nigel Mansell , Alex Barron , Tom Sneva , Ed Carpenter
Teams Panther Racing