A year ago they seemingly "had 'em covered."
First came the bright promise stoked by owner-driver Ed Carpenter's pole position in qualifying. Then came the brilliant prowess of leading a race-high 67 laps in turbulent traffic on a surface that continued to grow hazardously slick as ambient temperatures pushed the 100-degree mark.
Then came the bitter disappointment.
After an entire year of the long hours and late nights essential to planning and preparation, Dwight native Joe Howard and his Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) teammates ended up a grand total of 2.9-seconds short of winning the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and largest single-day sporting event in the world, the Indianapolis 500.
Last year's runner-up finish came in the 15th Indy 500 for Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue University grad who's put his engineering degree to work as the senior damper engineer at ECR. He knows as well as anybody the disappointment that Indy can bring. He also knows that despite past results at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), good or bad, hope springs eternal each year in May.
This year is no exception.
"It helps to have a driver like Ed leading the way with setups and experience at IMS," Howard told The Pantagraph this week. "Over the years, Ed and the engineering staff have been able to confidently point the setups in the proper direction, not only for qualifying speed, but for race conditions as well."
Continuity also can play a role in success and ECR has enjoyed that in its engineering staff of 11. The brain trust is headed by team manager Tim Broyles, who along with chief engineer Matt Barnes and Howard have been together since ECR's inception in 2012.
While sharing the disappointments inherent to the sport, they've also enjoyed the thrill of victory lane together in the IndyCar series, including a win a few years back in the prestigious Long Beach Grand Prix.
The team was fast off the transporter in last week's open test at IMS for the 103rd running of the Indy 500, slated for May 26.
While the testing speed chart was topped by Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan driver Takuma Sato, the 2017 Indy champ, Carpenter was second and ECR teammate Spencer Pigot third in a session interrupted by intermittent showers.
"Even though the weather didn't cooperate fully, we were able to learn from a few changes made to the cars," Howard said. "Track time is always very valuable at any race track, but it's especially the case at Indy. When it wasn't raining, the team did a great job of getting straight to work and running every minute the track was green flagged."
With the current generation of Indy cars equipped with leased motors and a universal aeropackage, the damper (shock and suspension) program at each team has taken on significant importance. Teams, including Howard and ECR, are constantly searching that area for the slightest advantage over a brutally competitive IndyCar field.
In the first four races this year, the series has not only had four different drivers win, four different teams have won. (The drivers were Josef Newgarden, Colton Herta, Sato and Alexander Rossi; the teams were Penske, Harding Steinbrenner, Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan and Andretti Autosport).
Although Pigot qualified for the "Fast Six' round of time trials at Alabama's Barber Motorsports Park a month ago, ECR has generally put itself behind the proverbial eight-ball and in the back of the field in qualifying this year. A combination of improved race-day setups and Pigot being good in traffic has resulted in mostly mid-pack finishes to date.
Howard says the most valuable aspect of this season has been what they've learned from both success and difficulty.
"Development within the team is ongoing," he said. "Fortunately, we have confidence in understanding our performances so far and we can apply some of these lessons to further improve. When a team does NOT know the source of speed, or lack of speed, is when a team may lack confidence moving forward."
ECR and the IndyCar series drivers and teams will get their next test in the IndyCar Grand Prix on the IMS road course May 11. The following week, Carpenter hopes to nail down his fourth Indy 500 pole in the last seven years on 500 qualifying weekend of May 18-19.