The last time an Andretti Autosport IndyCar graced the winner’s circle was at Iowa in 2010, when driver Tony Kanaan pulled off a surprise win over Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves. It’s been eleven races since Andretti Autosport last tasted victory, and it’s also been eleven races since a team other than Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing has won an IndyCar event. That changed in Long Beach on Sunday, but the victor wasn’t Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay or even Danica Patrick; instead, it was Andretti driver Mike Conway who stormed to the lead with brilliant passes on Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti and Penske’s Ryan Briscoe with 18 laps remaining. Both passes were textbook examples of out-braking into a corner, and Conway made it look easy. Once in clean air, he quickly opened up a four second lead and never faced a challenge for the position.
Conway was critically injured in a crash at last year’s Indy 500, when contact with the slowing car of Ryan Hunter-Reay launched him into a catch fence. The accident left Conway with a broken leg, a compression fracture to his lower back and fractured vertebrae in his neck. Sidelined for the remainder of 2010, Conway was an unproven commodity when signed by Andretti for the 2011 season.
Much of the weekend’s drama took place before the green flag fell. Penske’s Will Power took the pole position, but apparently blocked a late qualifying run by Ganassi’s Scott Dixon. Power apologized, but Dixon wasn’t buying it, commenting to the effect of, “what comes around, goes around”. The Ganassi cars of Franchitti and Dixon started from seventh and eighth position, respectively, uncharacteristically bad for the team. Despite Will Power’s pole, even Penske was inconsistent in qualifying, with cars starting from sixth (Helio Castroneves) and twelfth (Ryan Briscoe).
Aside from Conway’s brilliant passes, I’d stop short of calling this year’s race entertaining. The start, and subsequent restarts, were a disaster, with cars spread out in single and double file, stretched as far back as you could see. There were far too many “rookie” mistakes from experienced drivers (such as Helio Castroneves collecting teammate Will Power with a bonehead passing move) and communication between drivers and teams was an ongoing issue. Marco Andretti collected Sebastian Bourdais exiting pit row because his spotter neglected to advise of the car on his outside, a preventable accident that retired both cars. If anyone was expecting professional racing (or even professional TV commentary), they would have been sadly disappointed at this weekend’s coverage. Unless IndyCar can get some order restored to the series, with stewards actually controlling the races, it’s just a matter of time before a driver gets killed or the remaining fan base erodes. Speaking for myself, it’s getting harder and harder to watch the motorsport equivalent of pro wrestling.