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Conway hopes first win just the start

21 April 2011

Mike Conway became the IZOD IndyCar's first maiden winner of a race in almost three years when he emerged victorious from the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, marking a triumphant return from serious injury at last year's Indianapolis 500.

This week's win places him firmly among the top drivers in IndyCar and means he's unquestionably "arrived" in US open-wheel racing. As well as being fifth in the current championship points standings, he's enjoying the attention and the publicity that his win has got him.

"When I landed on Tuesday morning back in the UK, that's when everything was being put in the papers after the race," he said on a teleconference on Wednesday, having flown home after the Long Beach win to spend Easter in England with his family. "Some great coverage in the big national papers here. It's been really good. Been busy all day doing phone interviews, got some TV stuff lined up. It's been great. Lots of coverage."

Conway says he still finds it hard to understand or explain why his pace at that crucial final restart was so much better than everyone else around him. "I probably don't have a real answer for you.

"[The] car just felt good. Once I got past [Ryan Briscoe], I knew we had the pace to pull away. I don't know, just head down and just pushed for kind of a good eight to ten laps," he said. "I was surprised to see how quickly I pulled away initially, two or three seconds in two or three laps ... I really did focus on the restarts, keeping the tires warm. The last thing you want to do is pick up all the debris, marbles on the track. The warmer you can get the tires, the better. It just makes the restarts better. Maybe that was just enough to really make some good moves."

The win is still sinking in. "It was awesome when I was on the podium to look down and see all the winning names imprinted on the floor, seeing Mario and Michael [Andretti] on there, Al Unser, Jr. These are the guys I get to see every race weekend. It's great that my name will be on there now and be part of a great race. Got some serious history to it!"

Conway was happy to admit that having the experience of the Andrettis at Long Beach had definitely helped him with his performance. "Michael being a very experienced driver, Mario also who was at St. Pete, Marco, the great history between the three of them. Yeah, I mean, it's great to learn from them guys.

"I didn't actually ask him before Long Beach coming into it because I knew that the car would be good there because Ryan was quick the year before," he said. "Michael lets us sort of get on with our own kind of thing. When he feels that we need some direction or some help, he always gives us his point of view. That's always very helpful."

Both the driver and the team were hopeful that the new pairing would prove mutually successful, but Conway was frank in admitting that "I think [hoping for a win] three races in would have been maybe a bit much."

Team boss Michael Andretti admitted that he had been amazed by Conway's win. "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 considering what he had to go through, and at that point we were feeling good about where Ryan [Hunter-Reay] was and then all of a sudden Ryan had this [gearbox] problem and I felt really bad for him.

"And then all of a sudden everybody starts cheering, and I'm like, 'What are they cheering about?', and Mike is like, boom, going past Dario, and next thing you know he's past Briscoe. Unbelievable. And then he just walked it. I was so happy and proud."

Conway had already been looking like a strong contender for IndyCar success early in 2010 when he headed into the Indianapolis 500 in May and duly proved to be one of the fastest cars in the field. But as the leaders headed into the final lap, Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay collided and Conway was launched up into the air into the catch fence, and his car was ripped apart by the wire fencing with debris raining down onto the track and slightly injuring a number of fans.

Despite sustaining serious injuries that put him out of racing for the rest of the year, Conway never considered quitting the sport. "Straightaway I was thinking about when I could get back in the car. That's all I really thought about. I knew I had obviously the physical things to get over first, but mentally I was fine really. Once I knew sort of the extent of the injuries, how long it would take, my mindset was basically just set on that.

"Initially I saw the injuries I had, and I just wasn't sure when I'd get back. 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.

"From there it's just an ongoing process, bit by bit, day by day, until kind of where I am now ... It was a long off‑season, but I had a lot to focus on and a lot to keep my mind on, and when I kind of got the chance to get back in the car, I was ready."

Has he even seen replays of the crash? "Never really thought about the accident after. It was never a positive thing for me to look back on it and see the accident. I kind of just got on with things and just focused on what I needed to do. Just got through things bit by bit."

Having such a long period out of active duty could have left him without a race deal for 2011, and it surprised many observers when Michael Andretti backed Conway and signed him up, despite having shown star driver Tony Kanaan the door just weeks earlier. But Andretti denies he had any doubts about the move.

"I don't think it was [taking] a chance," Andretti said. "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.

"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, and the deal came together really late and 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 ... because of that, I feel really good about the rest of this year. I think we're going to be strong."

Despite how his 2010 appearance at the Brickyard ended, Conway still views the Indy 500 as "such a mega-race ... It's a great event. I can't wait to get back and start turning laps around the track because it's one of the best ones we go to. Always a great event, great crowds." He'll once again be at the wheel of the #27, which is the car number Michael Andretti had for his own final win at the Indy 500.

Before the Indy 500, Conway is looking to make the most of the momentum that the Long Beach win gives him going into the next IndyCar series race - the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 on May 1 - before the rest of the month becomes dominated with the build up to the hundredth running of the Indianapolis 500

Conway is keen to get another good result to set him up for the big one and is hopeful about Brazil, pointing out that he managed a top ten finish here in 2010 despite qualifying back in 19th with Dreyer & Reinbold, while Andretti Autosports themselves got Ryan Hunter-Reay into second place for the chequered flag at what was that year's IndyCar season opener.

"I think we should have a good starting point with the car there and hopefully can carry on our momentum from Long Beach and get a good result," he said. "I like it there. It's a cool circuit. I'll be taking opportunities, especially in the last corner ... It should be a good, fun race. With the weather in the mix, always mixes things up."

That tight last corner saw an astonishing 93 passes for position last year, thanks to a long straightaway that feeds into it. "That's crazy! 93? That's incredible," said Conway. "You have a slow, medium corner on that back straight. You can stay fairly close to the car in front of you. With the 'push to pass' you can definitely get things done actually before you get to that corner. I think that is why it's pretty close."

Another good result there, and Mike Conway will be among the favourites going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along with Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon - both previous winners of the Indy 500 - plus James Jakes, Justin Wilson and Jay Howard, and now joined by Pippa Mann, Britain's first female racing driver to be entered into the event, Conway is part of a huge British contingent seeking career-defining success at the most famous oval racing track in the world.


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