Mike Conway feels his maiden IndyCar Series victory has answered his critics and that consequently, he will no longer be remembered simply for cheating death in last year's Indianapolis 500.
The Andretti Autosport driver completed a sensational comeback from a life-threatening crash at the Brickyard last May by producing an impressive drive to win the 2011 Streets of Long Beach. His breakthrough IndyCar triumph in only his third race since returning to competition, the result ended a drought that had stretched back to a GP2 success at Monaco in 2008.
Without a win in his first two seasons in the IndyCar Series before the Long Beach weekend, the 27-year-old believes the victory has confirmed his talent and disproved some of his critics. The result lifted him to fifth in the drivers' standings.
“I've proved some doubters wrong and it has taken some weight off, I suppose,” he mused. “I didn't really feel any kind of pressure coming into this season and if any, it was good pressure I was feeling. I knew I was in a good spot at Andretti and all I had to do was piece it all together.
“Hopefully people won't remember me for crashing at Indy, but instead will remember me for winning at Long Beach. This is one big leap, but we have got to keep making small steps to make sure we are still up at the front. At the end of the day, I want to finish high up in the championship.”
Since escaping the horrific 220mph shunt at Indianapolis last year with fractures to his back and leg, the Kent-born star underwent a rigorous rehabilitation process whilst he was sidelined for the remainder of the 2010 campaign. Although hugely frustrated to miss the majority of last season, he says the long road back to full fitness has increased his focus and determination to succeed.
“To be stronger and more determined was the plan, to prove what I knew I was capable of,” he explained. “It wasn't hard to keep the belief that I could win, but just going through the process made me stronger mentally and physically. I felt really good as soon as the season came around, and we have been up there. I got taken out in both races before Long Beach; that could have knocked me back, but I didn't let it.
“I've had a longer time to prepare for the season. It was a good time to reflect on things and re-focus, and it's hard to say whether it's been a good thing – but I have felt better compared to previous seasons.”
Whilst he ranks the victory as one of the finest of his career, the race wasn't completely straightforward for the ex-British F3 Champion. After qualifying third, Conway soon found himself 21st following a mistake in the first round of pit-stops.
He progressively made his way through the field but still had plenty of work to do in eleventh place with 25 laps remaining, before an inspired final stint – during which he intelligently maintained the temperature in his tyres – allowed him to storm through the pack, passing Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe amongst others to take the chequered flag.
“It was a different kind of race compared to my last win in Monaco, but this one is pretty high up looking at all the wins I've had”, he reflected. “It's my first IndyCar win, so it's pretty special. It is great to pay the team back so soon for the faith they have shown in me, and hopefully this is the first win of many.”
by Tom Howard