Monty Python’s The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin seems to echo in my ears:
When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled!
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out
Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin
I may become incredibly unpopular in many racing circles, but I really need to come out and say it. Mike Conway is a BONA FIDE COWARD! Scoring his second IndyCar series win at Belle Isle on Saturday does not change my mind about that.
There, I said it. It has been quietly uttered by many in pressrooms on the IndyCar series since Conway the Coward’s announcement at Auto Club Speedway at the end of the season last year–that saw a nail biter end of a Championship between Will Power and eventual Champ, Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Conway is a brilliant road racer–proven in his early career in Formula Renault and GP2, where he scored a win at Monaco in 2008 and found himself in the position of test driver at McLaren. He came here to drive the 2008 IndyCar race at Sonoma and immediately impressed…. But like the new IndyCar ad campaign: “This is America. We Race IndyCar!”, it is a series that is incredibly competitive because it has incredible diversity–like no other series–as it attacks road courses, street circuits and of course, OVALS!
At the Indy 500 in 2010, Conway suffered injuries, including a broken leg and a compression fracture to a vertebrae in a terrifying last lap crash that hauntingly would look very similar to a crash that killed colleague and fellow countryman, Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas in 2011. For many, it could be considered a career-ending crash. But for the amicable Brit, who loves to go fast, he would return for the full 2012 season with AJ Foyt racing.
IndyCar seems to be making a fairly nice comeback after the devastating 12 year split orchestrated by Tony George. George went on to hang himself with the rope that ChampCar gave him as they reunited a few years back. While the cars, in their second season, remain relatively boring, the level of competition is returning–and the record shattering 2013 Indy 500 was proof that there is still magic at the Brickyard.
But look at racing in recent years: fatalities in the high levels of the sport are an anomaly due to amazing advances in safety. People still get hurt, no doubt–it still is very dangerous to hurtle a vehicle shaped like a missile around a paved track surrounded by barriers and fences. But a risk is still a risk, and many admire the bravery of those who choose (or can afford) to do it. Sometimes things do go wrong, and in the case of popular driver, Dan Wheldon, you can die doing what it is you love. The night before the ill fated 2011 Las Vegas race, Wheldon himself commented to Stefan Johannsen that ”somebody is going to get hurt tomorrow.” But, knowing the risks, he still got into the car.
After the fatal accident, that would have made Hollywood CGI technicians proud, many in attendance were completely shocked that the race was stopped and mere “tribute laps” behind a pace car ended the show. In racing history, the race would have continued. They kept racing at LeMans in 1955, at Monza in 1961, at Imola in 1994, California Speedway in 1999…
In comments published in the Arizona Republic on the eve of the 2013 Indy 500, AJ Foyt was quoted by writer Michael Knight, noting “I don’t want to be smart-assed…but you’ve got these drivers today who are a flash in the pan.” Foyt explained that “(fans) followed me, Parnelli (Jones), Al and Bobby Unser, Mario (Andretti) for many, many years. We run midgets and sprint cars about every week, all over the country … that’s what built our fan base.” Foyt went on to add, “Some of these boys today probably say: ‘We could have beat him or Parnelli any day of the week.’ Well, I’ve got news for them: They probably couldn’t even carry our helmet bags.”
Knight’s article noted that “Foyt said his generation was hungrier. Literally.”
“We had to run,” said Foyt. “If we didn’t, we had no money. We couldn’t eat or feed our children. After Indy I would go run a sprint-car race. People thought I was nuts. That’s the difference in racing today.” Never a wallflower, Foyt exuded the confidence required to be a champion when he stated, “I’m just glad to be named amongst the great race drivers….I did win a lot of very important races (including the Daytona 500 and Le Mans). To win, you’ve got to want to win, and I wanted to win very bad. Once you’ve won, second’s no good.”
AJ’s comments are spot on–and I am sure he uttered similar sentiment at Auto Club Speedway in 2012 when his driver told him he couldn’t race. In the gilded age of racing, a driver had about a 35% chance of surviving his career. Death was an accepted part of what they did. Consider also that safety was not at all what it was today–including the simplest devices such as a seatbelt. The cars were built differently and many felt it would be more survivable to be thrown from a crashing car than to take the brunt of the kinetic energy in the crash.
In the early 1970’s Formula One star Chris Amon came to Indy. He did two laps and packed his bags. He admitted the brickyard scared the hell out of him. He made no bones about it and went back to F1 and sports cars. Later in 1976 after two major F1 crashes, he hung up his helmet, feeling lucky to be alive and went back to gentleman farming took up Golf–a game he enjoys to this day in his native New Zealand.
Conway, on the other hand, keeps showing up at IndyCar events. He can win, and proved it at Long Beach and Belle Isle. But one of the things that separates IndyCar from all the other series out there is its diversity and its drivers ability to adapt to each of the different types of tracks. You rarely, if ever, see a ringer in IndyCars–that is a NASCAR thing. NASCAR teams will bring in guys who drive the big bore cars in Trans-Am, World Challenge, and ALMS to drive the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma as most of the heroes in that series only know how to turn left with their foot on the floor and with the exception of a few well bred drivers can win turning the occasional right, downshifting and braking. IndyCar has never really had that problem. Considering its history, most of the guys racing IndyCars were successful in whatever car they drove, wherever they drove.
Then you got Conway the Coward. He is a great technical driver with ability to spare. But put him on the grid on an oval and he suffers shrinkage to the lower extremities.
We live in an age now where neighborhood soccer games are contested, but everybody is a “winner”. It has been said that age 26 is the new 18. When there is something horrible that happens in sport–it is a tragedy of biblical proportions. Phooey!
I wish Mike Conway all the luck in the world. I admire his skills behind the wheel and understand he is a rather affable dude. But, in all honesty, It might serve him better to go compete in a sport where he might not hurt himself.
I hear Amon has an opening in his foursome on Saturday morning….