It’s Thursday, cold and threatening with rain. The immense track is largely quiet, just spots of activity here and there. We wander through Gasoline Alley, all the garages quietly busy with preparations for something happening soon enough. For the first time in a long time, I get a smell of ethanol, sickly sweet, decaying flowers; it makes me inhale deeper.
Apart from Pippa Mann, all long blond hair and a bright smile that seems to be saying “I’m quicker than most of the boys here,” none of the drivers are around.
Until I get to the last garages, and there’s Ed Carpenter.
Tony Borroz is attending the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500, scheduled for Sunday, May 28th, 2017. This series, Bricks And Bones, explores the cultural significance, endearing legacy, and the nitty-gritty phenomenon of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The prologue of this series here.
Chapter 1: Real Wronghere.
Chapter 2: St. Elmo’s Firehere.
You can tell what Ed Carpenter looked like when he was say, 12: just like he looks now, only shorter. He’s one of those guys that always looks like a kid, and if he didn’t have a day’s growth of beard, you’d think he was a college sophomore. Healey knows him, so we walk right in, and I get introduced and shake. His hands are warm and papery and he clamps down like a flesh covered vice. It’s a hazard of the profession. All race car drivers have a grip strength somewhere right around the bite force of a crocodile.
Carpenter is one of these odd throw-backs to what drivers were like 50 or 60 years ago. He is a local kid, born and raised in Speedway. He has the affect of a Mercury astronaut; quiet, personable, and gives you a feeling that you don’t have to scratch that deep to find a bottomless well of self confidence behind the wheel of a car. His smile is huge and genuine, and sort of reminds me of Mark Donohue; like an honest talking schoolboy who excelled at getting away with practical jokes. Carpenter is the nephew of the Georges (a branch of the track owning Hullman family) so yeah, that did give him a leg up, and opened more than a few doors. But that will only get you so far in the racing business. Sooner or later, you will have to produce, and Ed Carpenter did.
By his own admission, he’s not very competitive on road courses, so he’s turned into a high speed oval specialist. Indeed during qualifying he was the fastest Chevy powered car out there, qualifying 2nd over all.
Fine & Dandy
“How’s the car,” Healey asks, the implication being that he is surrounded by Hondas, and the next Chevy is his teammate J.R. Hildebrand four spots back; then even more Hondas and then the first of the mighty Penske-Chevrolet runners, Will Power in ninth.
“Oh good. We’re fine,” he said, and that’s what stops me hard. It’s the way he said “we’re fine,” that I notice. It was a simple and declarative statement, sort of like the response to his favorite color. I have noticed, over the years, there is one kind of driver to watch out for at the Indy 500. Usually, amidst all the hub-bub and noise, among all the racers that are going fast and being interviewed on TV, there will always be a few racers, and usually just one, up there at the front of the pack: head down, quietly going about their business, clocking lap after lap after lap, and doing it quickly.
And with that simple “we’re fine,” I realized Ed Carpenter is that racer.
I watch him and Healey chatting away as I think to myself, “shoot, this guy’s gonna win the whole thing, isn’t he?” There are no sure things in racing. Never. And although I would not bet, or say unequivocally that Ed Carpenter is going to win this thing, he is suddenly very much in my consciousness. Carpenter could win the Indy 500. He could do it, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.