Where the rubber meets the road
A year and a half of planning and hard work came to fruition for Patrick Carpentier in Montreal. Spent and exhausted? He hopes he's just getting started, writes Paul Grant.
Updated: August 5, 2007, 5:15 PM ETBy Paul Grant | ESPN.com
Editor's note: Senior coordinator Paul Grant is following the frantic life of Quebecer Patrick Carpentier as the former open-wheel star sets out to impress his home fans -- and team owners -- in Saturday's Busch Series race in Montreal. This is the last of three parts.MONTREAL -- You'd think finishing second in your hometown race in front of 70,000 screaming habitants would wear you out. You'd think a culmination of a year and a half of work, toil and promotion that intensified tenfold in the last week would cause you to figuratively crash. Not if you're the perpetual motion machine known as Patrick Carpentier. "What a great weekend," he said in the back of the No. 22 hauler while hurriedly changing out of his soaked coveralls into a white T-shirt and jeans. "I'm not tired anymore!" As the crew disassembled the hauler around Carpentier, packing boxes and high-fiving their driver, you could feel the energy emanating off him. After all, this is what it was all about. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is how the bills get paid. All the promotions, all the smiling, all the hand shaking take a back seat to this. Second place, after 74 laps. But it didn't look like the fairytale was going to end this way. After taking the pole at midday, Carpentier had afforded himself well on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the Busch Series' NAPA Auto Parts 200. He could easily have packed it in right there and everyone in the stands still would have loved him. And he almost did on Lap 66 when he was spun out by rookie Brad Coleman in the hairpin, seemingly ending his charge up the track and his attempt to reel in the 12 cars ahead of him.Not so fast. Instead, what transpired gives NASCAR conspiracy theorists more fodder. One minute Carpentier is 17th and looking more like an interesting also-ran. The next, he's one of three drivers doing doughnuts on the track in celebration. His day had started pretty much where it left off -- with an appointment to make. In the morning, he jumps out of his tricked-up Dodge SRT8, which was loaned to him by one of his sponsors, unpacks his trunk, grabs his gear, and jumps into an awaiting caravan of Dodge Caravans containing his manager, wife, photographers, TV crew and assorted media hangers-on. He's dressed in a white T-shirt, expensive jeans and a bedazzled belt buckle that Liberace would have worn had he been from Texas. Shiny blue Nikes cap his feet. It's 9:10 a.m., six hours and 20 minutes away from the green flag. As a French-Canadian band plays The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" at the nearby Budweiser tent, Carpentier steps out of the minivan and is instantly surrounded by awestruck fans. "Ah keep your eyes on the road/Your hands upon the wheel," the band sings as Carpentier smiles and shakes the hand of a winner of a 2007 Dodge Ram 1500 bearing the driver's number and name. The man can't wipe the smile from his face.
Time flying, his next appointment looming, Carpentier is swept into the minivan to cries of "Bon chance! Bon chance!" (Good luck!) by the fans. A couple of brakelight flashes later, he's gone. It's 9:40. He reappears 20 minutes later at the VIP suite above the garage, an opulent area generally populated by fingernail extensions and hair weaves. Everyone on this side of the track is wearing a shirt. Carpentier shakes hands in his own VIP suite, where relatives and sponsors mingle. He sits at a table and signs autograph after autograph, lefthanded, but dashes to the front quickly when he hears the engines of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Cup Series roar by for the start. He poses for photos with starry-eyed sponsors, has a chat with his in-laws, and almost an hour later he's on the move again, this time to the Dodge VIP suite, where he repeats the process but amid twice the number of people. He's careful to pause and pose for photos, Sharpie hanging in midair. At 11 a.m. his ever-increasing entourage is off again, this time to pose for photos beside the car with sponsors. At 11:27, he's somehow found his way to the back of the hauler, trying to relax while the TV flashes Nextel Cup practice from Pocono. "It's been crazy," he said amid the relative quiet of the hauler. The key today, aside from winning the race: stay hydrated. Carpentier said he suffered from dehydration on Friday during the Grand Am race and had to visit the infield medical center to get a boost from the IV. On the track, he wants to qualify well, but not too well -- he doesn't want to be the one setting the pace because he thinks he'll burn out his brakes too early if he does. But when it comes time to qualify, Carpentier can't hold back, blazing around the track in pole-winning prowess in the final qualifying session. He's starting from the pole. "Was that a dream?" he said, elated, smiling. It was his sixth time in the car. "I'm so happy." "No matter what happens in the race, I think I've made my point," he said between bites of St. Hubert chicken, minutes before the start of the race. "This is great, but I spent my life on ovals, from speed skating to IndyCar. I'd like to get a shot at that. But now I'm just going to go have fun and enjoy the moment."
Marc Urquhart for ESPN.comPatrick Carpentier kept spreading the gospel on Saturday to anyone who would listen.
With everything going on around him, all the promotional stops, how did he maintain his focus? How was he able to calm himself down and stay composed in the car? The guy's about to face a packed track, a job on the line, inexperience a monkey on his back, and he's eating chicken? He reaches into the left-front pocket of his jeans and produces what looks like a wad of Canadian bills. He flips over the blue $5 bill and reveals a series of business cards, inside of which is a white card. On the note, six English words are block-written in black pen. He pulls it back quickly, before the list can be read. "They represent to me a state of mind, the best to perform in," he said. "I've been doing that for a few months now. "It's not about repeating the words, it's more of a mood I need to get into. As the race gets closer and closer, it gets harder and harder." Carpentier adds that he doesn't really get nervous -- not usually. "Today, I'm nervous a little bit more," he said. "There's so much unknown for me, that's what's creating the stress." After the race, removed from the clamor, smile and grit an equal mix on his face, he spoke excitedly of winning. He spoke enthusiastically about being finally able to do a doughnut -- in all his open-wheel years, all he was able to manage, in his words, was a "croissant." He spoke quickly of what he wanted to attain. He spoke of what this result had done for his future. On his mind was a bit of the past and present, too. Carpentier's mother had broken her arm in two places in a motorcycle accident on Monday and wasn't able to be at the race. His daughter, Anais, 6, was inaccurately diagnosed with cystic fibrosis earlier in the summer -- it was three weeks before he and his wife, Anick, had the matter sorted out. The wife of Carpentier's marketing director, Joe Caron, is fighting cancer. These are the things to get stressed out about. That's pressure. Those things are always with him. But for now, Patrick Carpentier looked up from fiddling with his gear, and for a first time in a long time, he stopped. And then he smiled.Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.com.
Marc Urquhart for ESPN.comThe media crush around Patrick Carpentier was constant all weekend.