Carpenter: IndyCar's feel-good story

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Team Penske's Will Power and Helio Castroneves ran 1-2 in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship, and Ryan Hunter-Reay stole the headlines by winning the Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion.

But another great storyline in the IndyCar Series this year is the rise of Ed Carpenter Racing. The 33-year-old Carpenter, the only owner-driver in the series, scored a confident victory Saturday night in the Firestone Indy 600 in his second start of the season.

When Carpenter's points are added with those of Mike Conway, who already achieved a race win at Long Beach while driving the ECR Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet in IndyCar road racing events this year, the No. 20 car ranks seventh in the championship standings.

Had Carpenter been able to finish the Indianapolis 500, where he took pole position and was in contention for victory late in the race before being swept into an accident with Townsend Bell and James Hinchcliffe, ECR could be sitting as high as third in the owners' point standings right now.

Carpenter's story is compelling in many ways. For starters, he's a Butler University marketing graduate and the only IndyCar regular who came up through the old-school oval racing path of midgets and sprint cars.

His passion for short-track racing can be explained by his lineage: Carpenter is the adopted son of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George, and over the years, he has developed into exactly the kind of homegrown star that George envisioned when he formed the Indy Racing League.

However, the IndyCar Series became increasingly road racing-oriented since Carpenter made his full-time debut in 2004. He improved considerably as a road racer, but was smart enough to realize that even being 98 percent as quick as the top aces like Power, Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon wouldn't put him or his team in position to win races.

So Carpenter made the team-first decision to step out of the car for the IndyCar Series' 12 road races, handing it over to Englishman Conway. The change paid off quickly as Conway stormed to victory in just the second race of the season and backed it up with pole position for one of the twin races at Detroit Belle Isle.

Meanwhile, Carpenter jumped into the car at Indianapolis for the 500 without missing a beat and showed that it could be a matter of when -- not if -- he wins the sport's biggest race.

The win at Texas Motor Speedway was validation to Carpenter for the one that got away at Indy.

"It's just good to bounce back," he remarked. "Nothing really totally makes up for a missed opportunity at the [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway, but at the same time, it always feels good to win, especially at a place like this. I've enjoyed coming to this racetrack for a long time and appreciate the job that [track president] Eddie [Gossage] does here for our series and the drivers.

"This is a big win for us."

It's been an interesting journey to team ownership for Carpenter. He gained a year of experience driving for Eddie Cheever's IRL team before George formed Vision Racing to give Carpenter additional opportunity to grow.

When Vision shut down, Carpenter spent a year with Sarah Fisher Racing, where he scored a popular first victory at Kentucky Speedway in 2011, edging four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti in a thrilling finish.

At that time, somewhat inspired by Fisher, Carpenter decided to put his business and marketing acumen to good use. He formed ECR, seeking technical assistance from longtime Indy Car entrant Walker Racing and landing solid financial backing from PGA golf legend (and Indiana icon) Fuzzy Zoeller and his rapidly growing boutique vodka business.

While running just one car, ECR has emerged as one of the sport's most professional operations, and Carpenter duly scored another race win in the 2012 IndyCar Series finale at Auto Club Speedway. Now, with the substitution of Conway on the road courses, Ed Carpenter Racing is a threat to win on any given weekend.

"We'd love to go to a team that could have one driver contend for the championship when we have the opportunity," Carpenter said. "But at the same time, we want to be able to grow at our own pace and do it in a way that's going to allow us to continue to do things the way we're doing them now -- which we feel like is working.

"You know, I wouldn't trade any one person on our team for any other person up and down pit lane," he added. "We've got a good group of people, and I think we're able to show that on track right now. Like I keep saying, I'm really proud of the whole team, the whole effort, the whole group. It's a great team to be a part of. We have a lot of fun, and it's even more fun when you're winning."

For all of his success as a driver and a team owner, Carpenter has done an even better job overcoming the inevitable byproducts of his relationship with George, one of the most complex and polarizing figures in American motorsports.

Joining the Hulman-George family as a boy when his mother, Laura, married Tony may have made some things easier for Carpenter, but it had to have made other aspects of his career more difficult.

Tony George has maintained a low public profile since stepping away as CEO of IMS in 2009, though he remains on the board of Hulman and Co. However, he plays an important role at Ed Carpenter Racing and was on hand at Texas to enjoy another victory with his son.

"I'm very proud of Ed, obviously, and this whole team led by Tim Broyles and Bret Schmitt and Matt Barnes," George said, while sitting next to Carpenter at the postrace news conference. "Ed did a great job, actually. A lot of credit goes to him for managing the whole race. The strategy kind of kept changing and we did have to pit early once, but that kind of caused some other dominoes to fall, and it was a big win for us here at Texas. I'm glad Ed finally was able to post a win here.

"Our plan this year was to be competitive every week we showed up at the racetrack," he added. "This is a great win for Ed in 2014, and we think we can win more with Mike and Ed. Our intent was to show up this year prepared to contend every weekend and try to win the championship."