LONG BEACH — A day after Dario Franchitti announced his retirement, another IndyCar driver said he was also getting out of his car.
Ed Carpenter’s decision in November to race only on ovals and to turn his car over to a more skilled driver on road and street courses was largely overshadowed by Franchitti’s sudden retirement because of injuries suffered in a crash a month earlier.
Carpenter wanted Mike Conway, who had willingly walked away from ovals a year earlier, behind the wheel and said hiring the British driver would “strengthen our team by competing for victories at every single event.”
It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Carpenter, the professional race car driver.
But as the owner of Ed Carpenter Racing, he had to make what appeared to be the best decision for his young race team.
Only two races into the new arrangement, Carpenter’s decision was validated Sunday by Conway’s win at the 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It was just the second victory for the organization, which first visited Victory Lane in the 2012 season finale at Fontana as Carpenter wrapped up his debut season as a driver/owner.
“I have never won a race this early in the season,” Carpenter said. “Usually I win at the end of the year. So this is very exciting to show that our decision paid off pretty quickly.”
The victory was also more redemption for Conway, who some believed had thrown away his career when he decided after a day of testing for the 2012 season finale at Fontana that he no longer wanted to race on ovals. He’d missed most of the 2010 season with serious injuries to his back and leg suffered in a last-lap crash at the Indianapolis 500, and Conway was a participant in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas when Dan Wheldon was killed.
He wasn’t comfortable on ovals, he didn’t enjoy racing on them and he simply wasn’t going to do it anymore even though it cost him his ride.
Conway still managed to put together seven IndyCar starts last season. It helped tremendously that he won at Detroit in his debut with Dale Coyne Racing, and he parlayed it into an invitation from Coyne to run the double-headers at Toronto and Houston. All told, Conway grabbed a win, two podium finishes and five top-10 finishes in his seven starts.
But even with those results, Conway wasn’t sure anyone in the paddock was interested in offering a steady job to a driver not willing to race for the IndyCar championship. The current schedule has 12 road and street course races and six ovals.
“Slim, definitely slim. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back,” Conway said. “But managed to pick up some rides last year and kind of showed that I’ve still got a lot of speed, and we won in Detroit as well. But I still wasn’t sure at the end of last year what was going to happen.
“To be able to pick this up is a dream come true. It couldn’t have worked out any better between me and Ed. I’m very thankful for the position I’m in and trying to make the most of it.”
Hiring Conway gave Carpenter the flexibility, freedom and ability to focus on the business-side of the race team, and he was able to put together a deal to enter a second car in the Indianapolis 500. Carpenter won the Indy pole last year, but as a single-car team, he had nobody to work with during preparations for the race and finished 10th.
Now he’ll have JR Hildebrand, who as a rookie nearly won the 2011 race, as his teammate. It gives Carpenter two shots to win the Indy 500, and with Conway, Ed Carpenter Racing is truly a legitimate threat to make it to Victory Lane every race.
“We’ve got a really good group of people. Some great engineers on board and everyone is working really hard,” Conway said. “If you’ve got that drive and that hunger within the team, you can definitely achieve anything.”