INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Conway would just like to forget last May.
Now he may finally have a chance.
Fifty weeks after leaving Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a helicopter, Conway climbed back into a race car, turning his first laps at the track since that scary scene and perhaps, finally, closing the book on one of the most frightening crashes in Indianapolis 500 history.
“I really don’t like to talk about it,” Conway said. “To be honest with you, this is just another track. I had a bad experience in the race last year, and I’ve gotten past all that.
“I’ve been kind of mentally prepared for it, visualizing the laps and that kind of thing.”
It hasn’t been easy to move on for the 27-year-old English driver.
He missed the final 11 races last season and needed nearly eight months to fully recover from a compression fracture in his back and a left leg that was nearly shattered in the wreck. His contract at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing expired, too, forcing Conway to find a new team.
And throughout the eight months of rehabilitation, Conway still had to contend with the constant reminders about what had happened.
Indy fans will never forget the indelible images.
Ryan Hunter-Reay ran out of gas between turns three and four, just in front of Conway, who was trying to chase down race leader Dario Franchitti on the final lap. When Hunter-Reay and Conway collided, the No. 24 car went hurtling through the air. As it flipped, the underside of Conway’s car smashed into the catch fence, rebounded off and nearly landed on Hunter-Reay’s head as debris scattered across the track.
Conway survived, but there was really no escaping the crash.
“I’ve had it shown to me so many times, you didn’t really have a choice,” he said. “I don’t like watching it.”
But in racing, there is no time to whine.
Talk to any driver in Gasoline Alley and everyone can recount some “big hit” they have experienced and the courage it took to continue driving.
“I had a big wreck at Michigan in ’07 and then again (in the next race at Kentucky), and those situations test your resolve, your mettle, your determination,” said Franchitti, a two-time Indy winner and three-time IndyCar points champ. “You either get back in the car or you go home.”
Conway was not about to give up a career he was so passionate about, so he rededicated himself to building a leaner, stronger body in hopes of making it back for the season-finale at Homestead, Fla.
By the fall, Conway knew better and ceded the ride to replacement driver Ana Beatriz.
Then, in January, Conway returned to the track for the first time since the crash. It was just to get medical checks, but Dennis Reinbold was so impressed with Conway’s progression that he wanted to re-sign him.
Instead, Michael Andretti handed Conway the No. 27 car, adding to a stable that already included Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and, yes, Hunter-Reay.
“When I first saw him after he came back here (to Indianapolis), sometime around the holidays, he walked with no limp and you could tell he had been really working out,” Reinbold said. “I knew he’d be able to recover, but you never want to see your driver get hurt or your car get destroyed like that after working all month to put yourselves in position to win.”
This season, Conway has established himself as a dynamic new force in the series.
He has three top-10 starts in the first four races and won his first IndyCar title April 17 on the streets of Long Beach. Two weeks later, he finished sixth in Brazil and now returns to Indianapolis with confidence and a bright future.
On Saturday, Conway turned 20 laps in practice, though he took things relatively slowly. He posted a top speed of 220.160 mph, 28th out of 32 drivers and nearly 4 mph slower than Ed Carpenter’s chart-topping speed of 224.786. Rain washed out more than 21/2 hours of the scheduled six-hour session.
Andretti’s other three drivers did most of the speed work. Marco Andretti was fifth-fastest at 223.927. Patrick was 12th at 222.232 and Hunter-Reay was 18th at 221.296.
And now that Conway has won one race – making it though opening day – he can concentrate on winning the one that got away in last year’s crazy finish.
“It’s not an exact science coming back, but it is what we do,” Conway said. “It’s our job and we love doing it, and we try not to remember the bad things that happen on the track. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, so it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s see what we’ve got and how good we can get it,’ and I don’t think about what happened last year.”