LONG BEACH, Calif. — Watching Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car fade through the quick-paced pack on lap 70 of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Michael Andretti had that sinking feeling.
The No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda car started on the front row and was running second with 15 laps left, with Hunter-Reay primed to win for the second consecutive year on the 1.968-mile street circuit.
At that point, someone should have reminder the Andretti Autosport owner of the Yogi Berra malapropism “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
It would have been clairvoyant.
“It was crazy and I’ve got to admit unexpected,” Andretti said. “It’s so difficult to pass here, so I was really happy to see Mike (Conway) up in the top six, and I thought that’s not bad. At that point we were feeling good about where Ryan was and then all of a sudden Ryan has this (gearbox) problem. I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is over.’
“And then, all of a sudden, everybody starts cheering, and I’m thinking, ‘What are they cheering about?’ Mike is like, boom, going past Dario (Franchitti), and next thing you know he’s past (Ryan) Briscoe. Unbelievable.”
Conway, driving the No. 27 Window World Cares car, overtook Briscoe’s No. 6 Penske Truck Rentals car on lap 72 and went on to his first IZOD IndyCar Series victory. There were mixed emotions for Andretti to be sure.
“That’s the only downside about it when you have a four car team — not everybody is going to be happy leaving here,” Andretti continued in the post-race news conference. “I feel bad for the other three, but so excited for Mike. He had to fight back hard, and it just shows he doesn’t give up. He drove like a champion today.”
Conway, seated a few feet away, smiled in an “ah-shucks” moment. He’s the second consecutive Andretti Autosport driver to win at Long Beach — a race that has the family surname embedded in its 37-year history. Michael Andretti won his first and final Indy car races on the street circuit, while his father, Mario, won four times (including 1984 when the event transitioned from Formula One to Indy cars).
Hunter-Reay was credited with 23rd place. But teammate Danica Patrick, driving the No. 7 Team GoDaddy car, advanced 13 positions to record a season-high seventh place. She also extended her series record to 36 consecutive races running at the finish.
Maybe for the team in general, too. Conway’s victory was the first for Andretti Autosport since Iowa Speedway last June, and the team that won three championships (2004, ’05 and ’07) in four years looks to again be making waves through three-fourths of the initial road/street segment of the schedule.
Next up is the streets of Sao Paulo, where Hunter-Reay was runner-up and Conway finished eighth in the inaugural 2010 race. Then it’s on to the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where all four drivers again will be contenders.
Conway led 15 laps on the 2.5-mile oval last year before a crash late in which he suffered back and leg injuries that curtailed his season. Sooner than receiving medical clearance, Conway began a strenuous physical rehabilitation routine in his native England without guarantees of returning to IZOD IndyCar Series competition.
“Initially I saw the injuries I had and I just wasn’t sure when I’d get back,” Conway said. “Things like that can definitely stop your career. But I was just determined to not let it, determined to get back, back to fitness and back in a car.”
He didn’t stick with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for a third season, but his management — led by former Indy car driver Mark Blundell — began talks with Michael Andretti.
It wasn’t a leap of faith on the part of the veteran Indy car driver and team owner to sign Conway.
“I think Mike showed a lot of signs of brilliance last year at the beginning of the season and then unfortunately had his accident,” Andretti said. “Coming back, I had no question in my mind. I personally felt like he was going to be hungrier than ever, and that’s exactly the way it came about.
“I never felt like it was taking a chance. I was so happy that we were able to put a deal together with Mike because I wanted him all the way from the end of last year. I was very happy because I felt like he was going to be a great addition to the team — not only as a great talent, but he just fits in with the other three drivers, which is quite important to have that chemistry. And I think we have a great chemistry right now between the drivers, and because of that, I feel really good about the rest of this year. I think we’re going to be strong.”