Conway makes comeback look easy

Mike Conway hadn’t won in 23 career IndyCar races and hadn’t raced since a horrific crash at the Indianapolis 500 last May.

Battered and unproven, at least at winning races in the U.S., Conway wasn’t exactly the ideal candidate for teams needing a driver.

But when Michael Andretti found out Conway was available, he didn’t hesitate.

”Coming back, I had no question in my mind,” Andretti said. ”I personally felt like he was going to be hungrier than ever coming back and that’s exactly the way it came about.”

Conway didn’t take long to reward his new owner.

Driving in his third race for Andretti Autosport, Conway started third at Sunday’s Grand Prix of Long Beach, overcame a botched pit stop that dropped him to 16th and clawed his way back to the leaders. Taking advantage of a late caution, he zipped past Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe in a a pair of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it passes, then pulled away toward the checkers to win his first career IndyCar race.

The unflappable Englishman never got emotional when it was over, just hugged his team and thanked his owner for the chance.

”To get a win in the third race back is awesome,” he said Sunday after spraying champagne on the podium. ”I can’t thank Michael enough for believing in me and the team for doing such a great job.”

It was questionable whether Conway would ever make it back after one of the most frightening crashes in Indy 500 history.

The wreck came on the last lap, when Conway collided with future teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Conway’s Dreyer & Reinbold car went hurtling through the air, the nose of the car pointing back at Hunter-Reay at one point.

Once the car hit the barrier, it broke like a shattered light bulb, pieces flying in every direction. Conway narrowly missed landing on his head, but was still badly mangled, his lower leg almost shattered and a compression fracture in his back, along with numerous other injuries.

Immediately after the crash, Conway wanted to know how long it would take to get back into a car, hoping to return as quickly as possible. He prepared himself mentally for the long rehabilitation process, but it wasn’t easy; he wore a back brace for months after the May accident and was still on crutches in August.

Difficult as it was, Conway never quit fighting, never gave up hope that he’d be back behind the wheel.

”Initially, I saw the injuries I had and I just wasn’t sure when I’d get back,” he said. ”Things like that can definitely stop your career, but I was determined not to let it, determined to get back, back to fitness and back in the car.”

Conway had hoped to come back by the end of the 2010 season, but didn’t quite make it. Dreyer & Reinbold filled his seat with a variety of drivers and put rookie Charlie Kimball in the car for this season.

Looking for a ride, Conway did a test for Andretti Autosport and was impressive enough that the owner brought him onboard for this season.

”I never felt like it was taking a chance,” Michael Andretti said. ”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. 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.”

A former Formula One test driver and a winner at the European GP2 series at Monaco, Conway had an up-and-down first season in IndyCar, a handful of top-10 finishes – his best a third at Infineon – to go with plenty in the midteens and low 20s for Dreyer & Reinbold.

Conway had some troubles his first two races with Andretti, too, finishing 23rd at St. Petersburg after starting fourth and 22nd at Alabama. Still, he hadn’t shown any signs of being tentative after the horrific crash and had a good qualifying run at Long Beach.

Even after the pit mishap, Conway kept charging, working his way toward the front and past the leaders to take the checkers with his parents and brother in the stands and earn a victory that had his fellow competitors tipping their caps.

”Sometimes you come back from an injury and you work so hard on your recovery, sometimes you come back even stronger,” Briscoe said. ”I think he’s definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with as we move forward.”