LONG BEACH, Calif. — Back in September when Mike Conway climbed out of the A.J. Foyt Racing Indy car at Fontana, Calif., and admitted oval racing scared him; that he no longer felt comfortable in the race car and would never race on an oval again, it appeared that the driver from England’s career in this form of racing was over.
After all, race drivers are supposed to have equal parts bravery and talent.
But Conway had no reservations admitting he felt fear racing a car over 220 miles per hour around the high-banks of the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval. After all, he had suffered serious leg injuries in a horrifying last-lap crash on the final lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 when he ran into the back of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s out-of-fuel race car.
It wasn’t that long ago that admitting to such fear would have likely blacklisted a driver from ever getting another chance in an IndyCar. But team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan believed Conway still had talent on the street and road courses that make up the majority of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. He proved that when he drove the Andretti Autosport car to victory in the 2011 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing decided to expand to three cars for the 39th Toyota Grand Prix and offered a ride to Conway to go along with the team’s primary drivers Graham Rahal and James Jakes.
Conway made the most of his second chance in IndyCar on Friday when he was the second fastest driver in the combined practice sessions at the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street course in this Southern California resort community.
Conway ran 32 laps Friday in a Dallara/Honda with his fastest time of 1:09.4603 (101.998 miles per hour). The only driver who went faster was the 2010 Long Beach winner and the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Hunter-Reay’s time of 1:09.4224 (102.054 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport.
“I love Long Beach, I love getting back in the rhythm of this race track, but apparently Mike likes it too,” Hunter-Reay said of his former teammate at Andretti.
To borrow a phrase from the old Life Cereal commercial, apparently “Mikey likes it, too” but what he most likes is having a second chance to prove that at least on the street and road courses he can race with the best of them.
“It’s good to be back and the car was good from the outset,” Conway said. “It’s nice to be up there in the time sheets and it’s great to be back in the car. When you have a good result here it helps your confidence. I like this whole event. There is such a buzz with the crowds here. It’s a cool layout with the long straights and the big braking zones.
“It’s just a cool circuit.”
It didn’t take much time for Conway to feel comfortable back in the IndyCar and it was obvious by his fast speed.
“There were no cobwebs and I wasn’t rusty,” Conway said. “I felt pretty good coming in. I’ve been thinking about this race since I was offered the opportunity in February. It was good to get up to speed right away. It makes things easier. Big thanks to Bobby Rahal for making this happen.”
The two practice sessions were interrupted by several cars having issues in Turns 8 and 9 but none were serious. However, the stoppage in practice kept many drivers from having a chance to find that rhythm that works so well on this race course.
Two years ago Sebastien Bourdais ran an exclusive street and road course schedule for team owner Dale Coyne. With the IZOD IndyCar Series having a sub-championship known as the Mario Andretti Road Course Champion awarded to the driver that scores the most points on the non-oval tracks on the schedule Conway could conceivably put together a deal one day similar to what Bourdais did in 2011.
“I would love to keep racing in the series,” Conway said. “Right now it’s just one race at Long Beach but I would love to just do the street and road courses.
“It’s hard because the Indy 500 is an easy sell because how huge that race is, it’s history and the TV audience is huge. But if you could find a sponsor that wants to go racing and have some fun anything is possible. I knew it would be hard to put just a street course and road course program together. If they could find a driver to run the ovals than the whole Leaders Circle program would work. But it would be tough for the team.”
Conway is hopeful he’ll get a few more races this season but for right now Long Beach is it.
“I want to drive but we have to keep looking,” Conway said. “We need to try to make things happen.”
Defending Long Beach winner Will Power was third in the Team Verizon Chevrolet for Team Penske at 1:09.5166 (101.915 mph) followed by rookie driver Tristan Vautier’s 1:09.5657 (101.843 mph) in a Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Helio Castroneves, the 2001 Long Beach winner, rounded out the top five of the 27 cars that hit the track on Friday at 1:09.6608 (101.704 mph).
When Conway made the decision that he was through with oval racing at Fontana last September instead of being ridiculed his courage to admit his fear earned praise from his fellow drivers. That is something Conway found uplifting.
“It was nice,” Conway said. “It shows we are a real closed-knit group of people. We respect each other on the track and we’re good friends off the track. I wasn’t sure what people would say but I wasn’t really bothered by what people would say at the time either.
“But it was nice they felt that way about me.”