It could be argued and has that Mike Conway is one of the best road racers on the planet. It also could be argued and has that Ed Carpenter is one of the best oval racers on the planet.
So when Carpenter hired Conway last month to share the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Dallara-Chevrolet, it could’ve been argued and was, vehemently that ECR could be the most potent entry in the series in 2014, capable of winning multiple races, and maybe the entrant championship.
Perhaps it’s too early for that level of enthusiasm, but in the middle of the off-season it’s a fascinating story with several subplots on which to dwell. Essentially, Carpenter is doing something similar to Conway’s highly praised decision in 2012 putting aside his pride and surrendering one aspect of Indy car racing for the benefit of his team.
“It’s similar in a way, but the motives behind our decisions were different,” Carpenter tells RACER. “I still enjoy and would like to race road courses again someday. For Mike, quitting ovals was more of a personal decision. For me it was a personal decision that was good for our business. The similarities are there, but my decision was more about doing what’s right for the company. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect Mike’s decision, because it was a brave thing to do, but there is different reasoning behind both.”
Conway gave up oval racing for safety concerns. After sustaining multiple injuries at Indianapolis in crashes in 2010 and 2012, he stepped away from a bad-handling A.J. Foyt Racing machine at Fontana at the 2012 season finale. He was done with ovals for good, he announced, and would focus solely on road and street racing in the future.
That meant bouncing around the series from ride to ride last year, normally not the optimal route to victory. But with Conway’s skill, optimal routes didn’t seem to matter. He started as a one-off with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Long Beach and qualified fifth. Then dazzled with a win and third-place finish at Detroit’s double-header, driving for Dale Coyne Racing, which also fielded entries for him at Toronto and Houston that led to three top-10s in three races.
“At the end of 2012, I was unsure of what I was going to do,” Conway says. “I was able to pick up a few races here and there and got some good results, but I was still unsure about the future. I couldn’t have asked for any more from this deal with Ed. It was a dream come true. In terms of what could happen, it has enormous potential.”Around the time Conway was wondering what his future held, so was Carpenter, who freaks out competitors with his car control on ovals but self-admittedly needs more work on his road/street game. The decision leaves Carpenter with six races in 2014, although he hasn’t ruled out joining Conway in a second car on select road/street races if sponsorship allows.
“It was a hard decision, especially if I look at it from a selfish standpoint,” Carpenter said. “But as an owner, I need to make the best decisions to move the team forward. A lot of people had suggested this pairing recently. It was never that I disregarded it, but the timing wasn’t right until now.”
Conway, a product of the “British F3 to GP2 to F1 test driver” route who’s recognized as one of the best road racing talents around, hadn’t competed on an oval until 2008; Carpenter, a product of USAC sprints and midgets, didn’t race on a road course until 2005, his third year in Indy cars. They’re as opposite as can be found in racing. Teamed together, sharing a car in a mixed series, they’ll be a yin-yang force. Or at least that’s the prevailing thought before Conway’s first test with the team next week at Sebring.
“We feel the immediate potential is there,” Carpenter says. “We’ve got a great team for a single-car team. I believe in our people, and our cars are better than I was able to show. I always feel capable of winning at any oval we go to, and Mike thinks the same whenever he goes to a road course or street circuit. I’m confident that we can win races.”
Part of that confidence comes from Conway’s familiarity with ECR’s personnel. He worked with lead engineer Matt Barnes when both were at Andretti Autosport, and also knows team manager Tim Broyles and engineer Brent “Woody” Harvey from previous assignments.
“I feel at home already,” Conway says. “I think definitely we have the capability to do it. We have the tools. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but this team has the capability of winning races. It’s very exciting. A lot of work has been put into it. There’s a lot of competition in this series, but I think we have all the pieces in place to get results.”
So the goals are set high. Like victory for Carpenter in the Indianapolis 500, multiple wins for both drivers and an entrant championship for the No. 20, along with helping Chevrolet win the all-important manufacturer’s championship.
“They’re lofty goals, but you have to set high goals,” Carpenter says. “We have all the tools. It’s just a matter of going out there and performing.”
Only time will tell. From the looks of it, that time will be fast.