In terms of expectations, the season had gone well for Carpenter going into the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last Saturday night. Carpenter has a background in USAC's short track national series, so from the beginning of his IndyCar career, which began in 2003, ovals have been his strong suit. This year he racked up his best finishes on oval tracks: eighth place at Milwaukee and Iowa, and 12th at Texas. Carpenter was also strong at the Indy 500, running third with fewer than 20 laps to go before his front wing broke and spun him.
In 2005 IndyCar began adding road and street courses, where Carpenter had struggled big time through the years. But in 2012 he started to show signs of progress -- more speed, fewer spins and crashes, and had a 12th-place finish at Belle Isle in Detroit and 14th at Long Beach to show for it.
At Fontana Carpenter made an astonishing breakthrough. He won with a last-lap pass of Dario Franchitti. It was David beating Goliath.
"I think to be where we are right now as a first-year team is pretty remarkable," Carpenter said. "I think it's something that's extremely hard to do, to win in this series anywhere. To do it as a new team is pretty special."
It wasn't the first time this happened (Carpenter passed Franchitti in 2011 with five laps to go at Kentucky for his first IndyCar victory), but this was different. He'd finished second at Kentucky the two previous years by fractions of seconds. The single-formula equipment package, a Dallara-Honda, had remained the same, and he'd done it with veteran teams -- Sarah Fisher Racing in 2011, Panther Racing in 2010 and Vision Racing in 2009 -- that had plenty of data on the car on that track.
This season IndyCar introduced a new formula that required a completely different engineering approach to bring out a car's speed, and multi-car teams had a huge advantage over single-car teams in gathering information. Franchitti's Chip Ganassi ran four cars; Penske, Andretti and KV ran three; Dale Coyne ran two; Dragon ran a partial schedule with two; and Panther and Dreyer & Reinbold formed a technical alliance to get to two on the track. There were five one-car teams and out of all of them, Carpenter was the only to win.
"I had been working with the old car since 2003 and everyone we hired brought a lot of experience with the old car into the team," Carpenter said. "Going into the season with a new car as a single-car team, there's a lot of catching up to do and the multiple car teams had an advantage. In  the last year of the old car, it was easier for the small teams to do something, like Dan Wheldon winning at Indy for Bryan Herta. The old car was over developed and there was nothing new to learn. [With the new car,] We were on our own."
Carpenter's decision to add ownership to his responsibilities was sponsor-driven. He drove full time in the series for six seasons -- one with Cheever Racing and the next five for Vision, until the team folded prior to the 2010 season. Carpenter put together a four-race season with sponsorship from Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka, owned by Indiana golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, in 2010 with Panther.
When Fisher decided to retire in 2011, she hired Carpenter and he drove in 11 races with sponsorship from Dollar General.
"Fuzzy's couldn't be on the car with Sarah because of Dollar General," Carpenter said. "We knew Dollar General was leaving at the end of the season, so we started talking with Fuzzy's about sponsoring Sarah's car and they came to me with the idea of starting my own team. I hadn't thought about it at this point in my career, but opportunities like that don't come up very often and it may not come back again. It seemed like the right thing to do."
At this point Carpenter had a sponsor and not much else. But he found a ready-made solution to starting a team by hiring GM Derrick Walker, who won IndyCar races with Gil de Ferran and Robby Gordon, and was Penske's team manager in the 1980s. Carpenter also leased his first-rate race shop, transporter and equipment needed to run an IndyCar team. He didn't have an IndyCar program for 2012, but had a deal with Falken Tires to run a Porsche in American Le Mans GT.
"We wouldn't be here without Derrick," Carpenter said. "His thumbprint is all over this team. Tim Broyles is the team manager, and he's called the strategy all year long even when Derrick's here. We've built the team to kind of operate the same whether Derrick's here or whether he's not.
"More than anything, he likes to refer to himself as the rudder of the team. [...] I would call him an architect of helping us shape us here in year one."
Carpenter would like to expand to two cars next year. Ideally, it would be a strong road racer to help him and the car improve.
"It's something that we're continually working on, but it's got to be the right situation and do it in the right way and we're not there yet," Carpenter said.
With Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the championship at Fontana, it became an all-American celebration. Hunter-Reay and Carpenter were the sole Americans to win in the series this year.
"I'm really happy for Ryan," Carpenter said. "We were teammates for a few races back in 2009 and have been good friends since then. My daughter was in his wedding. He deserves it. He's had a great year."
Fontana made it a great year for Carpenter, too.
"I still would have been happy with the year and team," Carpenter said. "We had a lot of things go well. I think the win really caps it off. It will make for a nice offseason. It's something to be proud of."