Column By: PHILLIP B. WILSON / INDYCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – An appreciative Fuzzy Zoeller handed Ed Carpenter a special bottle before they smiled together for a celebratory picture on pit road Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I can’t drink this right now,” Carpenter said of the A.J. Foyt tribute Fuzzy’s Vodka bottle, a little gift from the sponsor after winning the Verizon P1 Award pole for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“I don’t expect you to,” Zoeller said. “That’s just for you.”
The retired professional golfer couldn’t have been more grateful to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ only current owner/driver, who drove the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to a third career Indy 500 pole.
“I’ll give him a whole case,” Zoeller said. “Hell, he can have a truckload.”
Carpenter fended off a challenge from four Team Penske Chevrolets — three driven by series champions Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power and the other by three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. And Castroneves had won this pole four times.
“I don’t want to be considered just a guy who can win poles here,” said Carpenter, whose best finish in 14 Indy 500 starts was fifth in 2008. “We certainly have a car fast enough to run up front.”
Castroneves earned the right to go last in the Fast Nine Shootout after being the quickest driver in Saturday qualifying. He was preparing himself in his car when Carpenter’s first-lap speed of 230.088 mph was announced on the public address system.
“Do we have enough gear to do that?” Castroneves asked a crew member.
He did not. Castroneves ended up eighth. Pagenaud, Power and Newgarden came in an impressive 2-3-4 to conclude a solid weekend for owner Roger Penske and his powerhouse organization.
But Carpenter was too strong.
“He was absolutely untouchable,” Castroneves said.
It was also a particularly satisfying weekend for ECR because Carpenter’s other two cars made the Fast Nine Shootout, too. Spencer Pigot qualified a career-best sixth and Danica Patrick seventh.
“It’s great to see him beat ‘em all,” Pigot said of his boss. “It’s tough to bet against him in qualifying at Indy.”
Pagenaud, a 2016 series champion, literally went to extra lengths to be trimmed out for his run. The Frenchman had fiancée Hailey McDermott cut his black hair so short in what he described as the “Helio look.”
“That was my baby, but Ed got it,” Pagenaud said of the pole. “Great job by him.”
Pagenaud’s four-lap average speed of 228.761 mph was almost six-tenths of a second behind Carpenter’s 229.618 mph, but this will be Pagenaud’s best starting position in seven Indy 500 starts. And his mind was already thinking about the race.
“Hailey, don’t walk on the checkers,” he said as they approached the black-and-white Victory Lane platform. “That’s bad luck.”
Penske cars have won this race a record 16 times and just celebrated a 200th career Indy car triumph in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12 on the IMS road course. Anybody who has been around IMS for any length of time knows “The Captain” is king. That includes Carpenter’s wife, Heather.
“We’ve just got to beat Roger,” she said. “Tell him it’s our turn to win the actual race, OK?”
Carpenter’s story of hometown hero doing good has been shared often over the years. The adopted son of IMS chairman Tony George practically grew up during his formative years at this famed 2.5-mile oval. This wasn’t just his playground, it was hallowed ground.
He’s never hid the fact that the Indy 500 is his No. 1 priority each and every year, although he must concern himself with running a two-car team for a full series season and be focused about managing 16 other races. Carpenter only drives the ovals because he’s convinced that’s best for his team.
In the last year or two, he’s been asked how long he intends to race. At 37, Carpenter still shows no signs of slowing down but concedes he can’t do this forever.
“I’ve been around here long enough, different things happen,” he said. “You never know how many more opportunities you’re going to get.”
What made this pole more special than when Carpenter qualified quickest in 2013 and 2014 is that his three children — Makenna (10), Ryder (8) and Cruz (5) — are old enough to appreciate the accomplishment.
“They’re into it now,” wife Heather said. “They’re watching the speeds. Cruz kept saying ‘All our cars are in the top nine.’”
Ryder wasn’t shy about offering an assessment.
“It’s cool to have it three times,” he said of the pole. “We’re really proud of him.”
Then they started to play together, hopping around on the concrete as if pit road had suddenly become their playground. The amusing and energetic interactions were eventually interrupted when Ryder peered toward the yard of bricks start/finish line and spotted something shiny.
“Look, Mom, it’s the trophy,” Ryder said.
“That’s the Borg-Warner,” Heather said of the sterling-silver Indianapolis 500 trophy, upon which winners have their likenesses placed in bas relief. “Hopefully, Daddy gets his face on there someday. Hopefully, next Sunday.”