Conway rebounds from injury, gets first career IndyCar victory

  • Mike Conway, driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Window World Cares Dallara Honda, drives en route to his victory during the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Mike Conway, driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Window… (Getty photo )
April 17, 2011|By Jim Peltz, Tribune Newspapers

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Few IndyCar drivers are more reserved and soft-spoken than Mike Conway, a 27-year-old Englishman who prefers to let his driving do the talking.

His skill spoke loud and clear Sunday as Conway, rebounding from serious injuries suffered in a horrific crash at last year's Indianapolis 500, won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach — his first victory in the Izod IndyCar Series in 26 starts.

"The car was just on fire, really, at the end," said Conway, who drives for Andretti Autosport, the team co-owned by former racer Michael Andretti. "Before I knew it, I was in the lead."

Conway passed Ryan Briscoe, who had a dominant car for much of the race, with 14 laps left in the 85-lap event and never looked back, winning by more than six seconds over the second-place Briscoe.

"Kudos to [Conway], it's a pretty special place for him to get his first [win]," Briscoe said of the famed 11-turn, 1.97-mile Long Beach seaside circuit. "Conway was lightning fast; I really had nothing for him."

Reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti finished third, and rookie James Hinchcliffe was fourth. Danica Patrick, a Conway teammate, finished seventh.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, another Conway teammate who won the Long Beach race last year, was challenging Briscoe for the lead again this year until his car encountered mechanical problems with 15 laps remaining. He finished 23rd.

"It's hard to swallow," Hunter-Reay said.

Conway was in his second IndyCar season at last year's Indy 500, driving for the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team, when he had a spectacular last-lap crash. His car went airborne over Hunter-Reay's car, slammed into the catchfence in front of the grandstands and nearly disintegrated.

Conway suffered multiple fractures to his lower left leg, among other injuries, which ended his season.

Even so, Andretti hired him to join its team this season. "I had no question in my mind" about signing Conway, Andretti said. "I personally felt he was going to be hungrier than ever. I never felt like it was taking a chance."

After the crash, "I just wasn't sure when I'd get back," said Conway, who endured months of rehabilitation for his injuries. "Things like that can definitely stop your career.

"But I was just determined not to let it, determined to get back — back to fitness and back in a car."

The first half of Sunday's race was largely uneventful, with Briscoe leading Hunter-Reay and pole-sitter Will Power of Team Penske. Briscoe ultimately led 35 laps, and Power led 29.

But there were several incidents in the final 20 laps, including a restart in which a group that included those three drivers barreled down Shoreline Drive and tried to squeeze through Turn 1, a sharp left-hander.

As they braked for the turn, Penske's Helio Castroneves slammed into the rear of Power's car, spinning out his teammate. The wreck dropped Power to a 10th-place finish, and he fell to second in the IndyCar championship standings, seven points behind Franchitti. Castroneves finished 12th.

Conway, meanwhile, had started third, dropped deep into the 27-car field after a bungled pit stop and then charged back. With his Long Beach win, Conway — who finished 23rd and 22nd, respectively, in the season's first two races — moved up to fifth in the IndyCar standings.

"After the hiccup in the pits, you'd think the race was over for him," Andretti said. "But he just hung in there, made some beautiful passes and did what it takes."

The race ended early for another Andretti, Marco, after he ran into the car driven by three-time Long Beach winner Sebastien Bourdais as they were side-by-side leaving the pits. Andretti finished 26th and Bourdais last in 27th.

"I have to take full blame," Andretti said. "I had no idea [Bourdais] was sitting there."

Despite finishing second, Briscoe looked at the bright side considering he had finished 18th and 21st, respectively, in the previous two races.

"Coming here, we didn't qualify very well," said Briscoe, who started 12th. "To get this result means a lot more than points. It's just going to strengthen us as a team moving forward."

If you go

BALTIMORE GRAND PRIX FESTIVAL OF SPEED

What: Auto racing festival, featuring IndyCar Series open-wheel race

When: Sept. 2-4

Where: Downtown Baltimore

Tickets: Available at baltimoregrandprix.com or by calling Ticketfly at 877-435-9849

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