DETROIT – It was a hot Friday in Sept. 2012 in California’s Inland Empire when Mike Conway did what was previously unthinkable:
The IndyCar driver admitted he was scared.
He climbed out of team owner A.J. Foyt’s IndyCar and said he would no longer compete on ovals. He was tired of the frightening feeling that ate away at him every time he drove around the oval tracks on the IndyCar Series schedule, and for good reason.
It was in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 that Conway ran into the back of a slower car on the final lap and was launched airborne, his IndyCar cartwheeling into the fence. He suffered serious leg injuries in the brutal crash. Conway would bounce back, however, less than a year later winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for Andretti Autosport.
He would compete in the entire 2013 schedule for the legendary Foyt’s race team. But, when he was too scared to run on ovals, he quit before the final race of the season.
For any race driver to admit fear is almost like a surgeon saying the sight of blood makes him squeamish.
Back in Foyt’s day as a race driver, that would have been the end of a racer’s career. But instead of being ridiculed, Conway’s fellow drivers admired him for having the courage to admit his fears.
Conway would compete in seven IndyCar Series races in 2013 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Dale Coyne Racing, including a victory in the first race of the Chevrolet Dual at Detroit doubleheader at Belle Isle. His performance as a road and street course driver was so impressive that team owner Ed Carpenter decided to turn over his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to Conway for the street and road courses this season while Carpenter continued on the ovals.
The arrangement has been a tremendous success as Conway won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach last month and Carpenter won his second-straight Indianapolis 500 pole and was a leading contender for the Indy 500 victory last Sunday before he was involved in a crash with James Hinchcliffe late in the race.
Conway is back at Detroit and was the second-fastest driver in Friday’s practice sessions with a fast time of 1:17.7149 (108.859 miles per hour) around the 13-turn, 2.36-mile temporary street course.
Conway did compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year but it was in the May 10 Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS Road Course. He was simply a team member for the two weeks of activity leading up to the 98th Indianapolis 500.
“I had no ambitions to be out there really at all,” Conway said. “I felt like I was a bit out of the loop, a bit of a spare part.
“It was still good to be there, a great place to be, the Speedway, especially when the 500 is on. Good to see Ed doing so well. A shame it didn't end too well. But they ran well all month. I think they'll be a threat on all the ovals coming up.
“But it was still good to be there.”
Conway and his fellow IndyCar competitors will have to get up early for Saturday’s knockout qualifications that include the Firestone Fast Six. That session begins at 8:35 a.m. ET. Sunday’s starting lineup will be determined in two 12-minute qualifications with five minutes of guaranteed time on Sunday morning. Group 2 will be the first on the track followed by Group 1.
“I obviously couldn't do that without a good car from Ed Carpenter Racing,” Conway said Friday. “I think we picked up where we left off at Long Beach. Seemed to be a good base to start with here.
“We haven't touched it much. All credit to the team.
“I do love this place. It's a lot of fun. Each lap gets your attention, that's for sure. It’s non-stop action around here. Yeah, I’m pretty happy so far.”
There must be something about this race course that perfectly suits Conway because it’s obvious based on Friday’s practice that he has a feel for this layout.
“I just tried to bring as much back from last year as I could this year,” Conway said. “The car rolled out. As soon as I went out on pit lane I felt like the car had a lot of grip. Small input in terms of setup from where we started back in Sebring.
“We've been trying to push the car as much as possible, developing things, dampers. We come to this point where we can roll out and be in the top six, which is where you always want to be. It's always where you want to be, especially with the doubleheaders.
“All credit to the team though. They've been working hard, flat out. Late night last night, non-stop, big effort from the boys. They've been flat out for the last eight, nine weeks. They're still pushing all the time. They're so competitive. It's good.”
Conway also believes the track surface has improved from last year when he dominated the Saturday race driving a Honda owned by Dale Coyne.
“To start with, I thought there was more grip than there was last year,” Conway said. “I felt pretty hooked up to start with. Just some curve changes down in three and seven were really the biggest things. They opened up seven a lot more now. The entry speed is a lot quicker than last year. Maybe a bit of time gained there.
“It's a real challenge around this place. Every lap, as I said, gets your attention. It’s very bumpy, very challenging. There are some corners that have got a lot of grip. Sometimes you go into corners and you're like, 'Oh, am I going to make it?' You come through it.
“It's always like that around here really. Just because of the bumps, quick change of direction, it's a lot of fun.”
For the IndyCar driver who admitted his “Fear of Ovals” he drives with “No Fear” on the street and road courses of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin's Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time. Sunday's is 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay Show host Rob D’Amico and Martin will recap last Sunday's 98th Indianapolis 500 and preview Sunday’s second Chevrolet Dual in Detroit IndyCar race.