INDIANAPOLIS -- Ed Carpenter knows how it looks. He has already won a trophy, claimed a $100,000 prize and even made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. It looks like he's committed one of the worst crimes an athlete can commit against sports: basking in an uncertain victory.
No, the longtime Indianapolis resident has not won his home race, the Indianapolis 500, which takes place Sunday (ABC, noon ET). He has only won the pole position, or first place in the starting lineup. At the Brickyard during this time of the month, that's always worth recognizing. "It's so unique because there's no other race where you can win the pole and sit around for a week before you actually go run the race," says the 33-year-old Carpenter, who captured the top spot on the 500 grid in 2013 as well. "It gives people a chance to pat you on the back longer than other races. It's fun."
If all the adulation coming Carpenter's way seems excessive relative to other sports, which tend not to go as big in their celebrations of the team or player who locks up a number one seed, consider just how steep the competition is just to qualify for the 500. Qualifying is essentially a race onto itself -- one that proceeds one car at a time, spans four laps around the 2.5-mile oval and unfolds in multiple stages in the weeks preceding the Indy 500 itself.
The objective is to average the highest speed in the shortest time possible in those four laps. Merely edging into that group is an exercise in bravery. It means a driver traveled 10 miles at full throttle for much of the trip, zipped in and out of bends at well over 200 mph, and lived to tell the tale. There should be a prize just for surviving that.
Once the fastest 33 cars are determined, the top nine finishers get together and square off for the pole. By the time Carpenter slithered into his car to take a final stab at the first spot on the grid, the other eight driver had already posted their standing marks; in fact, Canada's James Hinchcliffe seemed to have the competition wrapped up last Sunday after posting an average speed of 230.839 mph -- until Carpenter pipped him at 231.016 mph.
What does this all mean for Carpenter going into this Sunday? Theoretically, a better chance of finishing the 200 laps in front. In 93 of the 97 editions of the 500, 18 pole sitters have claimed the checkered flag a total of 21 times -- the last instance occurring in 2009, when Brazil's Helio Castroneves grabbed it. In 1986, according to track historian Donald Davidson, exactly half of the winners in 500 history had started from the first four positions.
Still, the result isn't always so inevitable. Some of that has to do with the mercurial nature of the 500 itself -- a much different race at Mile 1 than it is at Mile 100 and so on. Last year Carpenter led a field-most 37 laps only to lose a chance to regain primacy when the race drew a late caution flag, allowing Brazil's Tony Kanaan to cruise to victory while Carpenter finished 10th. "It's such a long race," says Kanaan, who sat on the pole in 2005, but started 12th in 2013. "It doesn't matter where you start. But it's a good feeling not to have anybody in front of you -- trust me. It's so nice just to have the pace car and they say, you go. Actually, they [the other drivers] go when you go. You control the field."
Another headwind in Carpenter's path to Victory Lane is IndyCar's effort to impose more uniform engineering standards on teams to keep the super rich from running away from the pack. "Unfortunately the way our cars are right now, the leader is the guy that has the least advantage on the field -- especially on the first lap and on the restarts," adds Kanaan, who races for one of those super rich teams, Ganassi. "You're so exposed. You cannot even defend [yourself]. You start and you go, "Ok, I'm gonna lose the lead in the first lap and I will recover it on the second lap. It's like a chess game.
"[Capturing the pole] was great. I'm not gonna take anything away from it because I have a trophy that says I was a pole winner in 2005, and it's awesome. But that's not telling you that that guy's going to win the race."
Still, there are worse guys to pick to go the distance than Carpenter. His top billing on the track and high ranking within one of racing's more noteworthy families -- his stepfather, Tony George, was the one-time overseer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- might make Carpenter out to be the ultimate frontrunner. But, really, he couldn't be more of a long shot.
In 11 years racing IndyCar, Carpenter has started 147 events and only won twice. He grew up racing on dirt tracks -- a path that generally leads to the stock car minor leagues, not open-wheel's triple-A: Indy Lights. He amassed the bulk of his Indy Lights experience while also carrying a full course load at Butler University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing in 2003. In fact, out of his racing livery, the flyaway-haired, full-faced Carpenter looks more like a wealth manager than racecar driver.
Nowadays, he's both. His eponymous team is the only driver-owned operation in IndyCar. It's pretty selfless, too. Preferring only to race on ovals, Carpenter tasks another driver, Mike Conway, a 30-year-old Brit, to pilot road-course events for the team.
Not many other drivers would be so willing to give up their seat time for the greater good. But Carpenter couldn't afford for his limitations as a driver distort the big picture. "It was a business decision," he says. "Mike brings something to the table that I don't. I don't feel like I have much of an ego, so it wasn't that hard of a decision."
The arrangement between them has worked out well so far. Last month Conway claimed the checkered flag at Long Beach. And of course last week Carpenter captured the pole in his debut 2014 IndyCar event. For his tiny operation, that $100,000 prize will have true value.
The trophy that comes with it -- a clear plinth bearing a matching disk the size of a steering wheel -- has currency too, but more of the sentimental sort. Carpenter keeps the one he earned last year on display in the party room in his house, which he shares with his wife, Heather, and their three kids -- all under the age of six. At some point, ideally this Sunday, he'd love to put another Brickyard prize right next to it: a replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy. But to score that one, Carpenter would have to do more than just finish what he started, but where he started too.