FONTANA, Calif. – There was unanimous support in IndyCar on Friday for driver Mike Conway, who pulled out of the season finale because he was uncomfortable racing on the oval at Auto Club Speedway.
"I was thinking about it last night and I thought, 'If you watched him through the chicane at Baltimore, bravery isn't an issue for Mike Conway,'" said four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. "I think it takes a very brave person to say, 'No, I don't like doing that.'"
Conway participated in Wednesday's open test at Fontana, where IndyCar is back for the first time since 2005. Sometime during the eight-hour session, the British driver decided he didn't want to run Saturday night in the 500-mile race.
Conway, who suffered serious leg and back injuries in a 2010 crash at Indianapolis and wrecked there again in this year's race, said pulling out was the hardest decision he's ever made.
"I've come to realize I'm not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them," he said in a statement. "I want to stress that I am not finished racing and to this end, I would love to continue with Foyt Racing, but that's something we need to discuss in the future."
Wade Cunningham, who was headed to his surprise birthday party at home in Indianapolis, when the team called, will replace Conway in the race. Cunningham ran a second entry for Foyt in the Indianapolis 500, but his race ended early with an electrical problem.
He said Conway was still at the track when he arrived on Thursday, and helped Cunningham go over data and debrief him from the test session.
"How many people have said that sort of thing and maybe feigned illness or whatever?" Cunningham said. "I don't think anyone doesn't understand his decision. He had a couple of really big accidents and if you are not comfortable out there, then there's no point doing it. Obviously, I don't think he's the happiest he's been emotionally. But he looked like a guy who was content with the decision."
A team spokeswoman said Conway was still in California, where family members were scheduled to visit and do some sightseeing after Saturday night's race. Although Conway was continuing with that plan, the team said he was declining any interviews for now.
"People have a pre-conception that racing drivers are all fearless," Cunningham said. "These are decisions that you have to weigh — personal safety, and personal satisfaction is a big part of it, too. If he's not gaining the personal satisfaction from competing and from driving, he definitely made the right decision."
Conway has run 22 oval races in IndyCar. His best finish was an eighth at Iowa in 2009. He was 20th in points with three top 10 finishes in 14 races this year. He was a season-best third at Toronto, and was second in qualifying two weeks ago at Baltimore.
But his strength is road and street courses, and he's not alone in feeling uneasy on racing on ovals.
There's been an overall concern since Dan Wheldon's death in last October's finale at Las Vegas. Drivers fretted for months about the compatibility of the car on some of the ovals, and they took a hands-on approach to helping the series decide on the aerodynamic package used at Texas in June.
The Texas race was the first high-banked oval for IndyCar since Wheldon's death, and drivers were relieved when the approved configuration produced a safe and exciting race. It's helped alleviate the tension headed into Auto Club Speedway, which is a fast, wide oval.
Still, with only five ovals on the IndyCar schedule, not all drivers ever feel comfortable.
"If your car doesn't work around here, it is daunting," said points leader Will Power. "He probably had a car that wasn't right. I think there's no shame at what he did at all considering some of the things that have happened to him, and I understand that when the car is not right, man, it is tough around this place.
"That's how ovals are, you either hate them or when the car is great, then you love them, When the car is bad on an oval you don't want to even be out there. That's the reality of racing on ovals in these cars. It's been made safer over the years, but it hurts when you hit. "
Conway indicated he was open in trying to continue his career in IndyCar, and team owner Chip Ganassi indicated there was a level of understanding in the paddock about Conway's decision.
"These cars today, it seems to me they are a very temperamental animal to keep under control at some of these tracks. You can get in a car sometimes and scare yourself; some in the best in the business scare themselves," Ganassi said. "You don't want to see anybody stepping out of something they love, but I don't think anybody has not expressed fear from time to time.
"That's part and parcel of IndyCar racing. I just hope that Mike has the right group of people around him, I hope he was just having a bad day."