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Hometown boy Carpenter proving unflappable at Indianapolis

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The Canadian Press
5/24/2013 2:42:51 PM
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INDIANAPOLIS -- He's the hometown hope, the Butler University alum and die-hard Indiana Pacers fan who has put his modest, one-car program on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 ahead of powerhouse programs from Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport.

There's more, though, and it runs as deep as blood.

The unflappable Ed Carpenter is also the stepson of series founder Tony George. That means his family tree has roots tracing all the way back to Tony Hulman, who bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War II, and includes Mari Hulman George, who still serves as speedway chairman and on Sunday will proclaim once more, "Gentleman, start your engines!"

So to say that much of Carpenter's life has been lived in Gasoline Alley, where he spent his formative years, is about as fitting for him as the maxim that "haste makes waste."

It also means that the Carpenter is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"I started racing quarter midgets when I was 8 years old, and at that point, I was already part of the Hulman family. That's the way it's always been for me," said the 32-year-old Carpenter, whose quiet voice and disarming smile belie a fierce competitive streak.

"I don't feel the pressure," he insisted moments later, as if driving home the point. "As far as the local fan base and support, it's fun. I don't think that translates into pressure."

Perhaps it's not that Carpenter feels pressure, but that he no longer recognizes it.

He'll be making his 10th start in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," but his first from the pole. And while peering eyes have been trained on him most of his life, Carpenter insists that the pressure he endures on a daily basis has never managed to overwhelm him.

"I don't like to say it means more to me because I'm from here," Carpenter said, "but it does mean a lot because of how much I love this place."

His first memories of Indianapolis go back to 1991, when he sat in the balcony overlooking the track and watched Rick Mears qualify for the pole. Even then, Carpenter knew that he wanted to one day drive over the hallowed ground that has been in his family for decades.

He proved at a young age that he could find victory lane, too, winning national championships in midgets and sprint cars. He graduated to Indy Lights and made his IndyCar debut in 2003, when he was hailed as part of the next wave of young American drivers who might someday wrestle the series back from a surge of foreign stars such as Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

But things got sidetracked along the way, as they often do in racing, and Carpenter became an after-thought. He started to bounce around to different teams, trying to find magic once more.

It wasn't until 2011, when he hooked up with Sarah Fisher Racing, that he won his first IndyCar race. And last year, after founding his own team, he surprised everyone but himself when he took the checked flag at the series finale at California.

"He's really a talent, and he's been developing for a long time, and he's become a special driver," said veteran Buddy Lazier, who also has a single-car team for this year's Indy 500.

"It's a huge inspiration," Lazier added. "Absolutely."

That success would eventually come to Carpenter didn't come as a surprise to those closest to him. Time after time, they point out that he never gets too high or low -- that he keeps an even keel in the roughest of waters, and remains grounded during the best of times.

"We all look at sports and talk about sports like it's the end-all, be-all, right? But when you're in it, you realize there's a lot more to life," said Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens, who's known Carpenter for about six years. "I think he's got a great perspective on it."

It was that perspective that stood out to former Masters and U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller, whose spirits company sponsors the No. 20 car that Carpenter will be driving on Sunday.

"He doesn't run hot and cold, like 90 per cent of athletes do. He's very, very calm," Zoeller said. "He doesn't get too fired up, he doesn't get too down, and that's very impressive.

"It's a difficult thing," Zoeller added, "because they only have one car. But hey, dreams are made, right? You have to start with something."

While he insists that pressure seems to run from his shoulders like water, Carpenter admits that he'll be anxious when Sunday dawns. He's not immune to the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500, the fly over and Jim Nabors and everything else that makes it such an iconic event.

This is in his blood, after all. It's part of his very fabric.

Nor does he know what his emotions will be like when the green flag drops, and he leads the field of 33 cars into the first corner with nothing in front of him but pavement.

But it's a moment that he intends to relish.

"I mean, if someone out there tells you they don't get butterflies or don't get antsy, they're flat-out liars," Carpenter said with a smile. "There's no way people don't walk out from driver intros and see the crowd and don't feel that. I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

Ed Carpenter (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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