It’s easy, and probably over-cliche, to say that all 33 drivers who will be vying for an Indianapolis 500 victory on May 29 would give an arm and a leg to actually win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It’s often been said that winning The 500 changes a driver’s life forever. While most of us die-hard fans would like that to be the case, the reality is that some driver’s lives really don’t change that much. Some drivers continue to live in relative obscurity throughout the rest of their careers and throughout the remainder of their days.
We also have this likely inflated fantasy that every racing driver in the world desires an Indianapolis 500 win above all else. Unfortunately, that too isn’t quite the case. It’s not even true to say that every driver who drives at Indianapolis, or even wins, came with the insatiable desire to find victory. Three-time winner Dario Franchitti made no secret that he was mostly unimpressed in his first years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and really didn’t see the big deal over the event. (Franchitti’s attitude changed within a few years, and he has since become one of the sport’s and the event’s greatest ambassadors. However, his early disregard for the event, in my opinion, forever stained his reputation among many in the IndyCar fanbase.)
But there are still plenty of drivers who put winning at Indianapolis above everything. There are those drivers who don’t care if they drive in any other races besides the Indianapolis 500 and would forego every other opportunity in their career to put their face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. There are still those who subscribe to the immortal words of Eddie Sachs:
I think of Indianapolis every day of the year, every hour of the day, and when I sleep, too. Everything I ever wanted in my life, I found inside the walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I love it all, from the first to the last day in May. On the morning of the race, if you told me my house had burned down, I’d say, “So what?’ The moment that race starts is always the greatest moment of my life, and the day I win that race, it will be as if my life has ended. There is nothing more I could want out of life.-Eddie Sachs
The current crop of IndyCar drivers are every bit the mixed bag as those of generations past. Each of them will say they want to win the race more than any other, and they will all, no doubt, start on May 29 knowing this is by far their biggest race of the year. They will certainly know that winning on Memorial Day weekend will bring them far more acclaim and accolades than even winning the Series Championship. But for some, the fire burns just a little hotter and some for whom finally putting their name atop the pylon after 200 laps would be just a little extra special.
The obvious answer here is Marco Andretti. Unquestionably, Marco wants to win possibly more than anyone for himself and his entire family. The Andretti Curse has been well documented in hundreds of articles over the years, and few people in all the racing world would ever be able to comprehend the pressure that was placed on young Marco from such a young age. His family has 76 starts in the Memorial Day Classic but only a single win to show for all their efforts.
There have been so many close calls and could’ve/would’ve/should’ves that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them. Each of the three generations has had heartbreaking runner-up finishes to go with other races where they were competing for the win but just didn’t get that last bit of luck they needed to emerge victorious.
When your grandfather is one of the greatest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a race car, and your father had a legendary, hall of fame career of his own, the pressure on Marco to perform at their level was suffocating. The fact that it fell upon a teenager was nothing short of cruel. Marco surely made some mistakes in his early days in how he handled the pressure, but the constant microscope he lived under did nothing to help him. Marco persevered and had more opportunities to win beyond 2006. A pair of third place finishes in 2008 and 2010 to go with a fourth-place finish in 2013 showed the youngest Andretti had staying power, but his run in 2014 was perhaps his strongest since 2006. Marco was a contender all day in that race and led as late as Lap 182. Unfortunately, his car just couldn’t get to the right place when he needed it to join Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves in the final shootout, and he finished a scant 0.3 seconds behind the winner in third place.
A victory for Marco Andretti would be a massive weight off his shoulders and, quite likely, the final hurrah for the Andretti name at Indianapolis (unless something unforeseen happens with Jarret Andretti’s career). It would be not only a victory for Marco and the entire Andretti family. It would be a win for the many generations of Andretti fans who have longed to see the Andretti name return to victory lane at Indianapolis for the first time in 53 years. I don’t think any of us non-racers could even start to understand the anguish it would begin to ease, but it would surely bring tears of joy to many people within the grandstands and fulfill the longtime desires of thousands upon thousands of race fans who went to their graves wanting to see another Andretti win at Indianapolis.
The list doesn’t end with Marco Andretti though. The other name that would be a shoe-in is that of Ed Carpenter. The three-time pole winner and stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George races for one goal and one goal only – to win the Indianapolis 500.
Ed Carpenter wasn’t born a Hulman. Carpenter’s mother, Laura, married Tony George when Ed was eight years old. However, Ed still came of age in the shadows of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has a deep, personally-vested interest in winning. Though the Hulman-George Family no longer owns and runs the Speedway, Ed must still feel a connection to the facility that no other driver can touch.
Carpenter has long been known as an IndyCar oval master and has been considered a legitimate threat to win at Indianapolis for many years. His three pole positions puts him in rather exclusive company, tried for sixth all time behind only Rick Mears, Rex Mays, AJ Foyt, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon.
At 41 years of age, Carpenter is certainly no longer a young man in what has quickly become a young man’s game. However, Indianapolis still continues to reward experience, as evidenced by the fact that some of the oldest drivers in the field have won the last two 500s. There is no doubt that Ed Carpenter still can win the Indianapolis 500, but he is going to need luck to start going his way. He has shown he can qualify well. And when most of the Chevrolet cars struggled last year, Ed’s car and the rest of the ECR Chevy-powered cars were the class of the field.
But Ed has yet to find that magic bullet that keeps him in contention in the late stages. Generally fast in the early stages of the race, Ed has never been able to get his car just exactly as he needs it in the closing laps to be in true contention for the win. In perhaps his best opportunity in 2014, Carpenter was running a strong second place when he was taken out in an accident on a Lap 175 restart by an optimistic James Hinchcliffe, three-wide pass attempt into Turn 1. Carpenter was furious (justifiably so) as he knew he had put his car where it needed to be to really contend for the win late in the race. But luck has always played a part in winning, and Carpenter has yet to have the luck go his way.
There are not many drivers who get a bigger ovation than Ed Carpenter on race day. The local hometown driver (even though he was actually born in Paris, IL) has an incredible connection with the Indianapolis faithful. The trio of Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, and Helio Castroneves consistently draw the loudest cheers from the masses on race day and throughout the Month of May. Unless Ed is going for victory against TK or Helio in the closing laps, Ed will be the clear cut fan favorite to win.
While there are other good stories and other drivers for whom pulling into Victory Lane would be a lifelong dream – such as Helio getting his unprecedented fifth win or Scott Dixon finally getting the second win he seemingly should have gotten years ago or Graham Rahal becoming the second second-generation winner after his father won the race 36 years ago – it’s hard to come up with an argument for any driver who deeply desires and covets a victory at Indianapolis more than Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter. With Marco looking to start his 17th race and Ed starting his 19th, a victory by either of them would obliterate Sam Hanks’ record of most starts before winning the 500 (Hanks won in his 13th start). I think if either of them found their way to Victory, that left turn into Victory Lane would be the final turn of their career.