Mike Conway, whose 2010 season was cut short by a horrific crash in the Indianapolis 500, bounced back in the best way possible with a victory in only his third race since recovering from severe back and leg injuries.
His win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach means he can now add the iconic Californian event to his collection of triumphs at the world’s great street courses, having already won the F3 Macau Grand Prix and in GP2 at Monaco.
Team boss Michael Andretti, who also earned his first IndyCar victory at Long Beach, said: “His comeback is now complete. The first time we put him in a race car, I could tell he had potential – I’m just so proud of him.”
Conway’s early adventures in the series with Dreyer & Reinbold had seen him immediately recognised as a threat on road and street courses, even as he struggled to master oval racing, and he carried that promise forward into the first two races of this season with his new team.
However, he was eliminated from the season opener in St Petersburg by one team-mate, Marco Andretti, and from the second race in Alabama by another, Danica Patrick, and languished near the bottom of the championship standings at the IndyCar Series arrived in Long Beach.
Despite this he qualified an impressive third and, as the race began, glued himself to the back of leaders Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay as the trio pulled away from the rest of the field.
That strong start came unstuck when he botched his first pitstop, overshooting his mark. As almost the entire field had taken advantage of a full course caution to pit together, the error dropped him to 21st.
The race was now led by Ryan Briscoe, catapulted to the front as one of the few drivers to get his pitstop out of the way before the caution, with Power and Hunter-Reay soon joining him. Conway, meanwhile, was left picking his way carefully through back-markers.
He had reached 11th place by lap 61 when another safety car restart caused havoc at the front of the field. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves hit his colleague Power, sending him spinning. The incident also wrecked Scott Dixon’s race and impeded Oriol Servia, the Spaniard being forced into an elegant spin to avoid contact before rejoining further down the field.
With the race again under caution, Conway was now sixth behind Briscoe, Andretti Autosport team-mate and 2010 Long Beach winner Hunter-Reay, Dario Franchitti, rookie James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani.
On the restart, with 16 laps remaining, he overtook the two Canadians and immediately found himself in third as Hunter-Reay suffered a gearbox problem, slowing dramatically.
Soon after, he set up Franchitti for a pass and then, a lap later on the same section of track, took Briscoe for the lead. Now in clean air, he built an immediate four second lead and pushed on to win by six.
Afterwards Conway’s rivals were left boggling by his pace.
Runner up Briscoe said: “We were on the soft tyre, that was key to at least giving us a shot at winning. Unfortunately at the end, Mike Conway, he was just a bullet – just drove around Dario and myself like we were standing still and drove into the distance.”
Franchitti added: “After the restart I thought we were doing okay, we were kind of sliding around and trying to clean the tyres up, and here comes the Conway Express. He was hooked up and blew by both of us in two coughs.”
The victorious Conway said: “It’s a fantastic feeling to win my first IndyCar race. I’d qualified well so was hopeful for a good finish but then my mistake at the first pit stop cost me and saw me at the back of the field. I knew I had a good car so it was a case of pushing on and working my way back up to the front.
“The car was so strong today and really came to life at the restarts. While the others seemed to struggle to get heat into their tyres I didn’t have this problem and was able to work my way right to the front.
“I want to say a huge thank you to the team for all the work they’ve put in this weekend and for giving me such a fantastic car to race. We now head to Sao Paulo for the next race in two weeks and I will be looking for another strong race there.”
For Michael Andretti, who’d written off Conway’s podium chances after his pitlane mishap and who was concentrating on Hunter-Reay’s victory hopes, it was a stunning outcome.
In the post-race press conference he said: “It was crazy and I’ve got to admit unexpected. It’s so difficult to pass here, so I was really happy to see Mike 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 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 and next thing you know he’s past Briscoe. Unbelievable.
“That’s the only downside about it when you have a four car team – not everybody is going to be happy leaving here. 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.”
Hunter-Reay was eventually classified 23rd while Patrick crossed the line in seventh. Marco Andretti smacked into Sebastien Bourdais in the pitlane and was credited with 26th of 27.
In a quiet day for the Ganassi team, Franchitti finished third and re-took the championship lead. Penske were left celebrating Briscoe’s second place – a recovery from a season start as brutal as Conway’s – while also ruing Castroneves’ mistake.
Dale Coyne’s James Jakes kept out of trouble to finish 15th, while Justin Wilson – driving like team-mate Ana Beatriz in a brace for a fractured wrist – was the innocent party in two crashes on his way to 22nd.
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