So, what did we learn from a rather unusual race that brought a talented driver's career back from the brink? Plenty. But what we learned most from Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that Mike Conway doesn’t just have the talent we suspected. Now we have proof
In case you’ve been living in Antarctica the past 10 months or so, here’s the latest abridged chapter in the Conway story: Debilitating injuries at Indy. Long, unspeakably painful rehab. The uncertain search for work. The sudden signing with one of IndyCar’s top teams. The whispers of potential. Then the statement of realization.
Yes, Mike Conway is good. That blast past Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe and into the lead Sunday at Long Beach told everyone what many had already suspected. This guy has a gift. He’s going to win races. And he won’t be remembered forever for a bad crash in the Indianapolis 500.
How bad? Bad enough that Conway's lower left leg had to be pieced back together. Bad enough that he had a compression fracture in his spine. Bad enough that a wheel ripped through the catch fence. Bad enough that he’s lucky to be here today, and he knows it.
“Initially I saw the injuries I had, and I just wasn't sure when I'd get back,” he 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.”
When Conway’s dad arrived at Methodist hospital that afternoon, Conway saw the look on his face and knew it had been a rough wreck. “My dad looked white,” Conway recalled back in January. “He was a bit shocked by the whole thing. I asked him if it was a bad run. He said, ‘Uh, yeah.’ That’s when I knew it must have been pretty bad. You never know what it looks like from the outside until you see it yourself. I was just trying to settle everyone and let them know I was OK.”
He was OK, and now he’s even better. The crash isn’t what defines Conway anymore; Long Beach is. The people who were studying him before the crash saw skills. The one who pursued him – Michael Andretti – is rewarded. There was something about that podium finish at Infineon in 2009 with Dreyer & Reinbold. Something about that front-row start last year at Barber. Something about the 15 laps he led at Indy before the crash. Something about Conway caught Andretti’s eye. Some saw it as taking a chance. Others saw it for what it was – the best pickup of the off-season.
“I don't think it was a chance,” Andretti said after Sunday’s win. “I think Mike showed a lot of signs of brilliance last year at the beginning of the season and then unfortunately had his accident. Coming back, I had no question in my mind. I personally felt like he was going to be hungrier than ever coming back, and that's exactly the way it came about. The first time he got in a race car for us, he was literally up in speed in about four or five laps after being out of a car that long. I never felt like it was taking a chance.”
Quiet and unassuming, Conway fits nicely with the new-school Andretti Autosport lineup. It’s a long way from the four amigos days of Andretti Green Racing, when Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta and Franchitti FedExed the left shoe from every pair Dan Wheldon brought to Japan back to the States. This group lacks that frivolity and insanity.
But it might – someday – be every bit as good.
Ryan Hunter-Reay is fully capable of multiple victories and a championship run. Marco Andretti is crazy fast at times, and could be a wild card at Indy. Danica Patrick, while headed for NASCAR in 2011, is tenacious on ovals, and, like Marco, capable of winning Indy.
But Conway? Conway was the brilliant hire, the road-racing specialist who’s quickly adapting to ovals. Score one for Michael in his dogged pursuit of the funding to put the 27-year-old Brit in a fourth car. Two things – mining for talent and mining for sponsors – have become Andretti’s trademarks as a team owner. He’s quite good at both, and the addition of Conway is proof.
“I was so happy that we were able to put a deal together with Mike because I was really wanting him all the way from the end of last year,” Andretti said. “The deal came together really late. 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. 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.”
Like Conway’s sudden emergence, not many people saw that coming.