Is ECR at a Crossroads?

During the pre-race telecast for Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen, Robin Miller asked Ed Carpenter who would be driving for him next season. Carpenter smiled as he candidly answered “I am”. While it was a quick and clever response, was it really the best answer?

Make no mistake, Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) is going through a rough season. Last year, Josef Newgarden won one race in the No.21 car while standing on the podium three other times on his way to a very strong fourth place finish. He was so impressive on the second-tier team that he parlayed it into a ride with Team Penske, and currently leads the championship by a scant three points with one race remaining.

That was the good news. The bad news was the No.20 car. Since 2014, Ed Carpenter has handed the No.20 car over to other drivers with better road/street course skills than Carpenter, who freely admits he is much better suited for ovals. The first year, it could not have gone better. Mike Conway won twice on the non-ovals at Long Beach and Toronto, while Carpenter won at Texas, finished fifth at Iowa and third at Fontana. Altogether, the No.20 Fuzzy’s Ultimate Premium Vodka car visited victory lane three times that season. Oh, and by the way – Carpenter won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 for the second year in a row. Ed Carpenter Racing was suddenly a one-car team worthy of the paddock’s respect.

For 2015, Ed Carpenter merged his one-car team with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and their promising young driver, Josef Newgarden. Carpenter would continue to run only the ovals, and turned the car over to Luca Filippi for the remainder of the races, while Newgarden drove the No.67 fulltime. While Newgarden won two races and two more podiums, finishing seventh in points; Carpenter and Filippi struggled. Carpenter had a best finish of sixth at Iowa, but an average finish of 17.83 for the six oval races he ran. Filippi wasn’t much better. He had a second at Toronto, a ninth at St. Petersburg and Belle Isle, along with a tenth at NOLA. But beyond that, it was a lot of sub-par performances for an average finishing position of 13.9 for the non-ovals. Altogether, the No.20 car that won three races the previous year had an average finish of 15.38 for 2015.

Last year was worse. Carpenter’s best finish was eighteenth, which happened twice – at Iowa and Texas. His other finishes were two twenty-first place finishes at Phoenix and Pocono, and a thirty-first in the Indianapolis 500. The car was parked for the non-ovals until Spencer Pigot came on board at Belle Isle. Pigot had a couple of good finishes as a rookie – a ninth at Road America and a seventh at Mid-Ohio. Meanwhile, Newgarden finished fourth in the championship as mentioned earlier.

This season, Carpenter showed some life in the first part of the season. He finished seventh at Phoenix, eleventh at Indianapolis and Texas and twelfth at Iowa and Pocono before getting tangled with Will Power on Lap One at Gateway to finish last (twenty-first). Meanwhile, Pigot has had three Top-Tens and two twelfth-place finishes on the non-ovals. JR Hildebrand was brought on to replace Newgarden in the No.21. It has been feast or mostly famine for Hildebrand. While he had a third at Phoenix and a second at Iowa, his other results have been outside the Top-Ten and eight races where he finished fifteenth or worse and is currently ranked fifteenth with one race to go.

So what’s my point with this history lesson? Well, this is probably considered a sacrilege by many, but I’m wondering if Ed Carpenter is doing his team and sponsors a disservice by sharing time in the No.20 car with another driver. Before the short track fans go berserk, hear me out.

Apparently, the folks at Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka have not had a problem with the two-driver concept in the No.20 car – at least, not yet. But by splitting time with another driver, the car is guaranteed to not ever be a part of the IndyCar championship. Therefore, it’s unlikely that he will ever be able to attract top-level talent to be that other driver. And if Fuzzy’s decides to scale back or leave altogether, what kind of track record will ECR be able to show on the No.20 car?

I was hoping for a lot more from Hildebrand this season. Although he has altered his appearance this year to resemble someone who sleeps under a bridge, he is still a good driver – even though he had not driven a car fulltime since he was unceremoniously dumped by John Barnes two days after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. But his results have simply not been there. He could probably benefit from an owner who is not trying to sort out his own driving problems.

Surprisingly, Ed Carpenter has not sought out the opinion of an old blogger sitting behind a keyboard in Nashville, TN – but I’ll offer it up anyway. It appears to most that the Indianapolis 500 is the most important race to Ed Carpenter. That’s not surprising since IMS is partly owned by his stepfather Tony George. But the family connection is certainly not the only reason he wants to be drinking milk one day. He is a student of the sport and knows the significance of the Indianapolis 500.

I think Carpenter should do his best to run two fulltime cars, with two fulltime drivers – and then roll the No.20 out every May for the foreseeable future. It’s easy for me to tell someone how to spend money and how to manage the remainder of their career, but it would not be any different from the years that the team ran a fulltime car, the split-driver car and a third one-off car for the “500” for Hildebrand.

As for Carpenter stepping out of the car for everything except for the Indianapolis 500, what would he be missing? Until 2016, there were no ovals prior to the “500”. I may be wrong, but he doesn’t appear to be having the time of his life in the other ovals on the schedule besides IMS. Carpenter will turn thirty-seven before the start of next season. He is not too old, but he is at the age when even the best drivers start thinking about life out of the cockpit. Not to disparage Carpenter’s driving ability, but I think he will ultimately be a much better executive than he is as a driver. Does that mean as a car-owner or as a top executive at IMS? I don’t know, but he would be successful whichever path he ultimately chose.

But for the short-term, I think his team, his sponsors and potential new sponsors might be better served if Carpenter stepped out of the cockpit, except during the Month of May, and focused his time and energy on running and improving his team. So in essence, I’m suggesting that Ed Carpenter fire himself except for one race per year. The added team stability and resources could possibly put that elusive Indianapolis 500 victory within realistic reach as he focuses on growing his team. It’s just a thought.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Is ECR at a Crossroads?”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    No poll today, but that’s another good blog post. You never fail to come up with a timely topic.
    Incidentally, I have been happy that young racers Pigot and Newgarden (and Hawksworth, Chaves, Daly, and Muñoz) have been *paid* to race. And I’ve been glad that Hildebrand has been given an opportunity to redeem his career. I wish that he didn’t look like a homeless person or a BeeGee.

  2. I mentioned this idea in several of my blog posts last year and plan to discuss it again in my season review. Pigot has shown great potential and should be in the 20 full time

  3. As soon as you started this blog I had my mind made up on everything I was going to say ………… except that you beat me to every single point.

  4. I think Carpenter should do his best to run two fulltime cars, with two fulltime drivers – and then roll the No.20 out every May for the foreseeable future

    It would be smart for Ed to start thinking about the long term future of the team…He showed self awareness when he took himself off of road/street courses but running himself on ovals limits his options for drivers. Set ego aside, run Indy only as a 3rd car and bring in 2 decent full time drivers.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    Room for T K ? ?

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I thought I heard him make a comment this summer about considering expanding ECR into sports cars. Did anyone else catch that? Two things I take from such a statement:

    1. I assume this means he has the potential of funding for such an endeavor to consider it. I have to wonder also if this possibly bolsters his Indycar efforts (both under one roof, some sharing of assets and personnel, etc.).
    2. He’d have even less time to focus on driving and more time to devote to running his team, which, if true, also leads me to believe he might easily opt for the Indy-only driving option as you stated.

    Either way, I assume it’s extremely difficult to realize when it’s best to give up the wheel and especially in turning down another chance at Indy.

  7. The other thing worth mentioning here is the change in engineering. I recall that Josef took his engineer to Penske with him and the engineer that took his place is from the AudI LMP program, new to the series entirely. Lots of learning curve combined with lots of accumulated twisty rust for JR.

    I hope JR gets another shot next year, but he probably needs to think about finding some seat time in Petite Lemans, Daytona 24 and Sebring. It should help with regaining twisty form.

    The thing that was the ” one change too many” element at Panther was the new car. I hope the new aero kit next year does not push ECR into the territory the Foyt team was,earlier this year.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    The ideal situation (which I’m sure Ed knows and agrees with) would be for Carpenter to run two drivers full time and bring out a third carbat the races he wants to contest. I see no non-financial reason why that should only be Indianapolis, Ed has speed (if not luck) elsewhere.

    Speaking of financials, though, it should be noted that many of ECR’s sponsors (or in the case of Fuzzy’s, co-owners I believe) are involved with the team because Ed is the driver. The team was started so Ed could drive. I’m fine with him doing what he and his partners want to do and don’t think there is much inherrent gain for the team in moving Ed to an Indy-only program.

  9. What I thought would have made the most sense when they had Newgarden and lost Conway was for Ed to return to full time racing, including the road and street courses. He is not good at them, but when they had Newgarden who was winning at the non-ovals, it would have worked. I think from a fitness and race readyness standpoint it is really tough for Ed and the 20 team to handle the change between each track. I firmly believe if he ran the full schedule, his oval results would improve. The problem is, without Newgarden and the guarantee of competitiveness he brought, returning Ed to full time driving would be risky. But if he wants to win the 500, being a full time driver seems like the thing to do.

  10. Regardless of what Ed does driving-wise, I don’t understand why he employs JR. Yes JR’s an American driver and a nice guy, and I appreciate that, but he’s an oval specialist. He’s not competitive on road and street. I’d much rather see Spencer get a shot full time in the 21 car next year.

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