To the masses it's known as qualifying weekend at the Indianapolis 500, a jam-packed two days of speed and drama. To the drivers and teams, it can be a weekend chock-full of nailbiting nervousness.
"That's the thing that I get the most anxious about every year," said three-time and reigning Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter. "Nothing is given in IndyCar racing and it's such a competitive series right now."
Carpenter, the only team owner/driver at racing's major league level, spoke with The Pantagraph by phone last week as his Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) teammates continued to dial up the intensity in preparing for this year's 103rd running of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
First on the agenda is dialing in a qualifying package that will put Carpenter and fellow ECR drivers Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones at the front of the field in time trials that get underway Saturday and conclude Sunday.
In a race that values tradition and history more than any other, Carpenter can etch a solo spot in the record books this weekend.
While 11 different drivers have won back-to-back Indy 500 poles, Carpenter could be the first to do it twice. His first two poles came in 2013-14.
Playing a vital role toward that aim is Dwight native Joe Howard, ECR's senior damper engineer in charge of the shocks and suspension system. It's an area that has taken on significant importance in an IndyCar era of a universal aeropackage and leased motors.
"That's a critical department that Joe heads," Carpenter said. "It's the largest area of development that we have within the current IndyCar rules. We have more freedom to explore and develop (and hopefully gain an edge) there than anywhere else."
Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue engineering grad, is taking part in his 16th Indy 500 as a full-time engineer and has been with ECR since its inception in 2012.
"Joe's experience is a valuable asset to us," Carpenter said. "He's hardworking and focused and has a tremendous passion and drive to win the Indianapolis 500."
Howard isn't the only Central Illinois connection to the team.
While widely regarded as a Hoosier from head-to-toe and annually introduced at the Speedway as "Indiana's own," Carpenter, 38, is actually a Central Illinois native and has memories of living here.
He was born in Edgar County and was 8 years old when his family moved to Terre Haute. He still has connections to the Land of Lincoln.
"I have a grandmother that lives in Vandalia and a couple of uncles that live in the Marshall area," he said. "I also try to make a hunting trip over there every year, but didn't make it last year."
As a youth, Carpenter — a stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George — cut his racing teeth in quarter-midget and three-quarter midget competition at the club, regional and national levels.
He continued to climb the USAC midget and sprint car ladder while an undergraduate at Butler University. Three weeks after earning his degree, Carpenter became a winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, capturing the inaugural Freedom 100 Indy Lights series race on Carb Day in 2003.
Since moving into the major league ranks, Carpenter has three IndyCar series victories, the first at Kentucky Speedway in 2011. He won the following year at Fontana and in 2014 at Texas. He's led in at least one event each year since 2008, including a race-high 65 laps a year ago at Indy before finishing second to Will Power.
After winning last year's Indy pole and by-and-large dominating the race, the runner-up finish was a tough pill to swallow.
"There was some initial disappointment," he said. "But as time goes by and you get more distance from it, you can have a better perspective of things. You have to take the positives away from it and focus on how close we were.
"We did all the things we had to do to be in a position to win it and it was great to have the opportunity to experience that. The key thing is, there were no glaring mistakes or miscalculations on our part in how it played out."
In addition to Carpenter's pole-winning performance a year ago, ECR — one of the smaller teams in the series — mostly prevailed in going toe-to-toe at Indy with the Andretti, Ganassi and Penske giants of IndyCar racing by putting all three of its cars in the top-seven in qualifying.
The performance gave the team a solid baseline in setting up the cars for this weekend's time trials and has been building on it with speeds consistently at or near the top of the chart in practice thus far.
"Because we had such a successful month last year, some of that can carry over to this year," Carpenter said. "But this series is so close and so competitive, you have to constantly push to get better and improve and I think we're doing that."
In Thursday's practice session, the three ECR cars swept the top three spots in the "no-tow" lap category, laps run outside a draft as they will in qualifying. Jones was quickest among the three with Carpenter second and Pigot third. Jones also topped the entire field with the fastest overall lap of the day.