Payne: Q&Auto with the fastest man on earth

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ed Carpenter is the fastest man on the planet.

With a scorching, 231-mph average speed over four laps of qualifying last year, he earned pole for the Indianapolis 500. Indy is the fastest oval track on the IndyCar schedule — and Indy oval racing is as fast as auto racing gets. Anywhere. A native of Indianapolis, the 33-year old Carpenter is living his childhood dream. But he is much more than a speed jockey. He is also the only driver/owner in IndyCar. His partner? The first female owner in the sport, Sarah Fisher.

It's been six months since the 2014 season ended, and Carpenter is getting antsy. North America's other big racing series, TUDOR United SportCar Championship and NASCAR, have already kicked off their 2015 calendar (the Daytona 24 Hours and Daytona 500, respectively). IndyCar doesn't come out of the gates until the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 29. Then the season will be non-stop – 16 races in five months, including The Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Grand Prix, May 30-31.

Over the next month, Carpenter will work furiously to prepare two team cars (each car requires a budget of at least $6 million). As a driver he trains daily. In between he promotes IndyCar. Like hosting a pre-screening of the movie "Focus" —starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and IndyCars — in Detroit this week. I sat down with the affable, soft-spoken oval-track master to talk speed, Super Bowls, and Suburbans.

Q: What's it like to be the fastest man on earth?

Carpenter: It's a lot of fun. Speeds like that are what focused me on motorsports, especially Indy. I've been the fastest the last two years and now I'd like to get to the track record (Ed. note: The track qualifying record is 237 mph set back in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk under different car rules).

Q: What's constant, 230-plus mph like?

Carpenter: The first lap feels really good at that speed. But we take out a lot of down-force (wing angle) to run at that speed and that's tough on the tires. We wear through a set in four laps — by lap four the tires are really sliding around. We're right on the limit of adhesion. What has gotten us on pole is the ability to run 230 consistently over four laps.

Q: You've joined forces with Sarah Fisher?

Carpenter: We talked about it in the past. We had each been trying to grow (to two car teams), but it's a challenge — a lot of money to raise. So now we're Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing, operating as a two-car team. I'll be driving ovals. And Luca Filippi will be driving the street courses.

Q: Your sponsors?

Carpenter: On the No. 20 car it's Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka who's been with me full-time for four years. On No. 67 car Hartman Oil is the primary sponsor. Our engines are Chevy. Sarah hired me in 2011 for her team when she retired. Dollar General was sponsoring that car and didn't want the confusion of Fuzzy's on their cars because they weren't selling any alcohol.

Q: TUDOR and NASCAR do their "Super Bowls" early in the year. You do yours — the Indianapolis 500 — over Memorial Day. Is that a good idea?

Carpenter: I like the way we're set up. A lot of Indy is about tradition. It's the focal point of our season and it's been Memorial Day weekend forever.

Q: Detroit comes right after Indy. How important is it?

Carpenter: Detroit is the only doubleheader (Saturday and Sunday races) on the schedule which makes it important. You can make a lot of points. It's hard coming (after Indy) because there's one team that's really happy and everyone else is licking their wounds. So everyone shows up in Detroit a little hung over in one way or another.

Q: Formula 1 costs have gone into the stratosphere after pressure from manufacturers to go to hybrid power plants. Do you feel pressure from manufacturers?

Carpenter: A bit. Chevy left (in 2004) and came back because IndyCar went to a smaller displacement, twin turbo, direct injection fueling. The formula is more in line with what they are building for production cars. They pull engineers from the production side and get them involved in racing to see our approach to problem solving.

Q:You leave the high speeds at the track. Still driving a Chevy Suburban at home?

Carpenter: Just got my new one a couple weeks ago. I've got three kids so I'm always dropping somebody off.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.