Where Does Vision Go From Here?
From what I’ve heard and read, most people were pulling for Ed Carpenter in the final laps of Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway. Count me among them. Most people like to root for the underdog and it has been a while since such an underdog was as close to victory as Ed Carpenter was last weekend. This was no cheap fuel tactic, where he gambled and found himself in position to win. This was a hard charging drive from the drop of the green flag to the checkered, and he almost pulled it off. My question is, where does he go from here?
Unfortunately for Ed, the series goes back to road courses for the next two races. This doesn’t bode well for him using the momentum from Kentucky to finish the season off in a strong fashion. That will have to wait for the final three ovals. Although he has gotten slightly better, road/street courses are just not Carpenter’s forte. To be brutally honest about it, he’s terrible when it comes to turning right.
It may help that the next two races, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, are both natural terrain road courses — although I’m not sure it makes much difference. Since the IRL started racing on road courses in 2005, Ed Carpenter has only had two top-ten finishes while turning right; a sixth place effort at Watkins Glen in 2006 and a tenth place finish at Belle Isle in Detroit in 2007. Other than that, it has been a run of DNF’s and poor finishes while running the road courses.
It has been an odd journey through the IndyCar career for good-guy Ed Carpenter. After a relatively successful career running midgets, Carpenter ran in the inaugural season of what was then the Infiniti Pro series (now Firestone Indy Lights). He ran two seasons in the Pro Series, the first with Sinden Racing and the second with AJ Foyt’s team, replacing grandson Anthony. It was then that he won the very first Freedom 100, the Indy Lights race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After running a handful of races for PDM that same year, he was tabbed to run the second Red Bull car at Cheever Racing as a teammate to Alex Barron. The results were not pretty as he scored only one top ten finish the entire season, and finished sixteenth in the points. Cheever released him at the end of the season.
With no prospects of latching on with another team for 2005, it was at this point that his stepfather Tony George stepped in, bought the assets of Tom Kelley’s operation and founded Vision Racing, with the word “vision” serving as an obnoxious referral to Tony George’s vision of starting the IRL. This was to be Ed Carpenter’s team for the foreseeable future.
Amid cries of “conflict of interest”, since Tony George was also the CEO of the series his team was now running in, the team struggled mightily. The best they could muster all year was a tenth place finish here in Nashville. Carpenter finished a mere eighteenth in points.
For 2006, Tony George added Cheever-Ganassi-Panther outcast Tomas Scheckter to the stable as a teammate for Ed. The results improved dramatically as Scheckter scored a third place at Milwaukee and finished tenth in points while Carpenter improved to finish fourteenth in the points. That wasn’t bad for a second-year team that had just expanded to a two-car team. Vision ceased being the punchline of the paddock after year two.
The following year, they got maybe too ambitious as they added AJ Foyt IV to the lineup creating a three-car team for the season, while also running Davey Hamilton in a one-off effort at Indy. Foyt had a third place run at Kentucky but finished fourteenth in points, one spot ahead of Carpenter while Scheckter finished tenth again.
For 2008, economic reality set in as the team scaled back to a two-car effort leaving Scheckter as odd man out. The team had new sponsorship for Carpenter’s team with Menard’s and Direct TV. At Indy, pharmaceutical giant Lilly jumped aboard Foyt’s car. IndyCar speed guru Larry Curry was brought aboard to help the engineering effort for the team. The Vision cars qualified second and third at the season opener at Homestead, but were later disqualified after failing technical inspection.
The embarrassment was too great for Tony George to handle — given his position with the league, and Larry Curry was fired. The team fell off and ended up with an inconsistent season. Carpenter did manage to post two top fives along with four more top tens. However, he had horrible results for the remainder of the races and finished again in fifteenth place for the season. AJ Foyt IV’s season was punctuated with being set on fire by his crew twice during the month of May.
The 2009 season has not been pretty except for mediocre showings at Kansas (ninth), Indy (eighth) and Texas (ninth). Those were the bright spots before Kentucky this past weekend. Now that they are through all of the distractions of the summer with Tony George’s ouster from his CEO position at IMS and the IRL, Tony George can focus all of his efforts and what’s left of his money on Vision Racing. He needs to decide what to do with Ryan Hunter-Reay who started a disastrous season at Vision but is now “on loan” to AJ Foyt, subbing for the injured Vitor Meira.
But now they have Kentucky on their resume. Is this the start of a new era at Vision Racing or is that just another good result at a track where Vision seems to perform well? It will be hard to tell with two more road courses staring them in the face. That was one thing that Ryan Hunter-Reay brought to the table – a strong history of road courses. Now Carpenter is left to figure it out for himself, unless Bryan Herta can still serve as a driving coach when not too busy with his Indy Lights effort.
Of course, the main purpose of Vision Racing is to serve as a future vehicle for Tony George and Ed Carpenter. Tony George is about to have a whole lot of free time on his hands following the actions of the IMS board this summer. He needs something that will occupy his time and keep him involved in racing. Ed Carpenter is being groomed to ultimately step out of the cockpit and run Vision Racing from the pit box, which is a role I think he’ll excel in. Given the family squabbles at the Speedway and the natural future generational splintering, I’m not sure that Ed Carpenter will ever have much of a role with the track. There is no Hulman blood in him and he is too closely aligned with his stepfather, who is clearly out of favor in the IMS boardroom. Things do change with time, however.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Vision closes out this season. Will Ed Carpenter put together a string of decent finishes or perhaps a win in one of those final three ovals? Or will Vision Racing just slip back into obscurity? They’ve got the tools, now they just need to push the right buttons. But I’ll bet Ed Carpenter is one driver who wasn’t excited to see that new road course ladened schedule that was announced last Friday.