- Paul Grant
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MONTREAL -- One thing you learn when spending a day with Patrick Carpentier is that if you want to keep up, you have to move fast.
That's appropriate, of course, considering speed is the office he works in, door-to-door jostling cars being his cubicle walls. But finding out first-hand is an entirely different story.
He has to be on his toes, especially this weekend. You see, Carpentier, 35, is arguably under the most scrutiny as the Busch Series makes its first stop in a Canadian city. As a local hero who grew up 45 minutes east of Montreal, he is the driver many are pinning their hopes on. Many Quebecers -- and much of the rest of the country, too -- will be identifying with him. When your French-Canadian city is being invaded by folks who speak with a Southern twang, you find comfort in what you know, and Patrick Carpentier is a known commodity. The province's other drivers are called by last names: Villeneuve, Tagliani. But Carpentier is just "Pat."
The former open-wheeler is currently riding full-time in the Grand Am series, biding his time with the hopes of getting a seat in stock-car racing. So, this weekend is also an audition for him, one extremely expensive job interview.
"You always have a little bit more stress," he said of being the hometown driver. "I was up early this morning. But to me it's more the stress of never having driven this thing, you know? Never knowing how it's going to go and how it is and how it's going to go on the track. For me, now, my stress is more at the race.
"It's not like there's nothing else if it doesn't happen," he continued, referring to his real estate business in Las Vegas, "but I'd love for it to happen. For sure, there's pressure. I'm trying not to put any [on], I'm trying to say there's none, but as the weekend goes, it's going to get worse and worse."
As if that wasn't enough, camera crews circle around him, a photographer documenting almost his every move. He has track officials high-fiving him and commending him in his native French as he walks through the pits. He is sought out by competing drivers for his take on how to get around the track. It's as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. were racing in Kannapolis, N.C., and everyone else in the U.S. spoke a different language. In other words, he is one popular dude.
The whirlwind pace is the culmination of what he and his business manager, Robert Desrosiers, have made their goal for the last year and a half.
Carpentier's day started at the track around 9, biding his time with meetings and greetings until it's time to jump in the car. And jump he did, blazing around the circuit named for Gilles Villeneuve in a morning-best time of 103.898 seconds, just ahead of road-course experts Scott Pruett, Boris Said, Ron Fellows and Robby Gordon. He'd finish fifth-fastest in the afternoon session.
"For me, honestly, yeah, I'm happy to be here at the front, but I don't want to be labeled as a road-course guy because for me I've always performed better on the oval, and that's what I'd like to do," he said, adding he's talking to a NASCAR team about a steadier gig. "I don't think I'm going to be at the front of the first oval because these guys, that's their backyard, that's their background. But I would like to do one to see how it is."
Moments later, there's Carpentier, the lone driver sitting at the press conference podium as both the fastest driver and the fastest Canadian. The TV lights flicked on, and he blinked nary a lid. He acquitted himself well in front of the typically cynical media bunch, giving fairly good quotes while drawing laughs for his self-deprecating humor and demeanor.
Then, still wearing his Zellers (think Canadian Wal-Mart, minus the square footage) coveralls, he walks quickly back to his weekend home, the hauler of Mike Bliss and David Stremme, the drivers who usually navigate the No. 22 Dodge for owner Armando Fitz. Once inside, he scrambles to find something to eat, ravenous after a hard morning of driving. Quickly, with a white plastic knife he slathers peanut butter and grape jelly onto two pieces of white bread, folds it over like a burrito, and soundlessly scarfs it down.
For me, honestly, yeah, I'm happy to be here at the front, but I don't want to be labeled as a road-course guy because for me I've always performed better on the oval, and that's what I'd like to do.
And his day is not even half over yet.
Then, it's back out onto pit road, where he desperately tries to find the location of a component for his helmet -- not to mention the pit box of his Grand Am ride, which is currently rumbling around the track with Kris Szekeres behind the wheel. Although he's not running and his legs aren't long, he quickly outdistances anyone in pursuit. If it weren't for the fact that people are constantly stopping him to chat, it would be impossible to keep up with him.
Equipment and team found, Carpentier is soon standing near his Grand Am pit box, hands on his hips, waiting for the car to arrive. He looks up at a bystander and twitches his eyebrows, as if to say, "How cool is this?" The dude is eating it up.
Several hot laps later -- figuratively and literally, as the mercury has rushed well past 90 amid the humidity and reflective asphalt -- and Carpentier is hauled out of the car in a way that owes more to Heimlich's maneuver than anything else. The transition between the Busch and Grand Am cars was difficult, he said, especially adjusting to the brakes and the different steering responsiveness. Then, a Speed TV reporter stops him for a quick interview. Carpentier affably obliges, putting down his helmet -- upon which is inscribed "Pat Carpentier" -- and responding with an enthusiasm that makes it reasonable to believe he's never been asked those questions before.
Once in the deep, cool recesses of the hauler, Carpentier lies down, exhausted. He closes his eyes, dials his wife, Anick, whom he hasn't seen in three weeks, and chats. "Bonjour, baby. Comme ca va?" He's still hours away from a quiet room service dinner and a viewing of the Tim Allen-John Travolta middle-age crisis motorcycle movie "Wild Hogs" in his rather humble hotel room.
But a particularly short 10 minutes later in the hauler, Desrosiers stirs the snoozing Carpentier, telling him the second Busch practice session is ready to go.
"We need the driver," someone says.
Carpentier rubs the sleep from his eyes, announces he's hungry, and hastily makes himself another grape jelly and peanut butter sandwich. A couple of quick bites later, he's out the door, leading the way, hard, again, to follow.
Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.com.
7dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz