The IndyCar season roars back to life today with the St Petersburg Grand Prix, but Mike Conway won't be taking part at "Saint Pete's". The British driver has only one race lined up this season, on the street circuit at Long Beach next month, after walking away from the sport four days before the final race of last season saying he no longer wanted to compete on IndyCar's oval tracks because he didn't feel "comfortable".
Conway's confession was unusual but his team, AJ Foyt, accepted it and other drivers came forward to applaud his courage in admitting his fear. The 27-year-old from Sevenoaks in Kent had good reason to be uneasy. It was his fourth season in IndyCar, and he had already experienced two horrifying crashes, both on the oval of the showpiece Indy 500 race. Then there is the memory of his compatriot Dan Wheldon, who died in a massive accident in Las Vegas in the last race of 2011.
The issue of safety in oval-racing is especially poignant this season, as only a month ago 33 spectators were injured at a Nascar Nationwide series stock-car race in Daytona. Rookie Kyle Larsen's car was cut in half as it hit the "catch fence" and his engine embedded itself in the barrier while other debris, including one of the wheels, was propelled into the stands. Nascar's curtain-raiser, the Daytona 500, went ahead the next day regardless. There was no stopping it.
Conway was in his second year in IndyCar racing when he suffered his first crash, at the Indianapolis Speedway in 2010. On the last lap of the most prestigious event in American motorsport, he collided with Ryan Hunter-Reay's car as the latter was slowing down due to a shortage of fuel.
Conway's car was launched into the air like a toy and flew into the fence. He suffered a broken leg and fractured his spine, and missed the rest of the season.
In 2011 he won his first grand prix, at Long Beach, where he will race again on 21 April. But when Conway lined up for the Indy 500 last year, eight months after Wheldon's death, the nightmare was to return – on exactly the same part of the track. Conway struck one of his crew as he was leaving the pits. The mechanic was not hurt and there appeared to be no damage to the car, but Conway lost control and went spinning into Will Power's car, then took off again, turning round backwards before striking the fence topside first. This time he was unharmed, but he bore the psychological scars.
Conway insists he was not thinking about the first crash when he lined up for that race. "The one in 2010 was a big crash. But it's not something you can think about," he told The Independent on Sunday from his training base in Phoenix, Arizona. "It's just another race, you just have to get on with it. Otherwise it's going to be a distraction. At those speeds, everything happens so fast and you can't be thinking about anything else."
But he won't be returning to race at the legendary "Brickyard". "It's one of those races where it's a real experience, a huge occasion, one of the biggest sporting events in the world," he says. "You spend a month trying to get as much pace out of the car as possible in the build-up to it. But I won't miss it."
He carried the psychological damage with him through the rest of the 2012 season until it came to the surface at the Fontana GP last October. It had become rather more than a mere distraction. "I've had a few big ones and I'm lucky to be here today," he admits. "Obviously it's difficult with IndyCar because of the importance of the Indy 500, and there are five or six other ovals.
"Last year wasn't an easy one for sure, especially with some of the ovals we were racing. I would wake up each morning and not look forward to the race. You [should] always look forward to getting in the car and racing. It was time to say enough is enough and call it a day.
"As a driver, when you crash you expect to get out and walk away. At the Indy 500 [in 2010] I couldn't get out of the car. Then obviously the thing with Dan [Wheldon] happened in 2011 and that was at the back of my mind as well. After last year I thought to myself, that was enough. I didn't want to have that on my mind any more."
After Wheldon's death, the first in an IndyCar race since 1999, the organisers got together to try to improve safety. "Getting rid of pack-racing was the biggest change they've made, where you had cars racing side by side or even three wide for lap after lap. It was an accident waiting to happen.
"Pack-racing means you have got too much downforce. You're going flat out all the time. The stewards have done a good job, they have reduced the downforce on the more high-banked ovals, which means you're not going to be racing side by side. Obviously with that Nascar crash at Daytona last month, everybody wants to get the tracks safer for drivers but for the fans as well."
It is not just the doubts in his own mind that continue to haunt Conway. "People want you to sign pictures of your car flying through the air," he says with a degree of disgust. "I don't sign them because it's not a good memory. I suppose they are genuine fans, but you won't catch me signing those photos."
Conway was test-driving for Honda's Formula One team at the age of 23 but was unable to obtain a position in F1. He was given his chance in the States and remains comfortable racing on roads.
"I suppose I don't think about the safety aspects of road racing, it's been my background since I was eight," he says. "Some of the fans say to me, 'Don't you get bored driving around in circles?' "
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