Conway Has Good Day At Beach

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 20 2013

Mike Conway shows speed for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in Long Beach practice. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

All the bench racing Englishman Mike Conway has logged during his extended offseason began to pay off in Southern California on Friday, opening day of practice for the 39th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Making his belated 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series debut for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Conway was second-quick during both sessions around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street circuit. Reigning series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay topped the overall practice sheet at 1 minute, 09.4224-seconds and 102.054 mph in the No. 1 DHL Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Andretti Autosport.

But Conway, whose last series start was on Sept. 2 on the Streets of Baltimore, proved rust-free with a lap in 1:09.4603/101.998 mph in the No. 17 blue eCigs Dallara/Honda as teammate to Graham Rahal and James Jakes. Conway – who scored his lone series win at this event while driving for Andretti Autosport in 2011 – was a spectator for the season’s first two events. Conway was released from his fulltime ride with A.J. Foyt Racing at the end of the 2012 campaign after declining to participate in the season-ending oval event on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Conway, 29, recently completed a day-long test for the team fronted by 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

“It’s hard when you want to get as many laps as you can in here, but we got a good amount of laps,” said Conway, who completed 12 total circuits. “Get rid of the cobwebs and the car felt good (in the first session), and the same in the second one. We couldn’t get a clear run. We got one in, and I think a lot of people, they either got one or they didn’t get any so we were lucky to just get the one.

“It’s a shame. We wanted to get through a few changes during that session. But the blu eCigs car felt good from the moment we stepped on the track. I’m just happy to be here. Trying to do a good job for these guys. Pretty happy with the balance. I think we have some areas to work on. But to still be running around the top two in the last two sessions is pretty encouraging.”

Conway, who competed in a World Endurance Championship race at Silverstone, England, last weekend, will be making his fifth start at Long Beach – considered the crown jewel of American street racing.

“There will obviously be people who are race-ready, having competed in the first two events, but I’ve been thinking about Long Beach since the start of the year,” Conway said. “I don’t feel like I’m rusty. I felt at home straight away in the car (at Barber) and that was the main thing. I felt comfortable. I’ve been doing laps of Long Beach in my head for the last few months, so I feel like I’m in-tune that way.”

A third practice, set for 45 minutes, is scheduled for Saturday. Three rounds of qualifying will be televised on a delayed basis by NBC Sports Network at 6 p.m. (EDT).

Sunday’s race will be televised live at 4 p.m. (EDT) by NBC Sports Network (Verizon FiOS 90/590, DirecTV 220, DISH 159 and AT&T UVerse 640) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network, including on Sirius and XM Channels 211 and www.indycar.com.

“Long Beach has got its own unique corners to it so it’s not the same setup you would run at St. Pete,” said Conway, referring to the Florida site of the season-opener won by James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport. “Even though it looks similar, the corners are quite different. You have different surfaces there as well. It’s quite a unique place but similar characteristics in terms of other street courses with big curbs, bumps and walls everywhere.

“Getting used to the new tires Firestone is using this year shouldn’t take long. With all the little things you miss with setups here and there and key areas, I just have to make changes to get up to speed as quick as possible. But l feel ready.”

Last season, Conway qualified 14th at Long Beach but started seventh after a series of penalties handed out by INDYCAR officials to Chevy-powered teams. Conway retired in 22nd due to mechanical issues. In 2011, Conway qualified third and led 14 laps to earn his first series victory with Andretti Autosport. RLL expanded to three entries for Long Beach with primary sponsorship from blu eCigs, which also is a full-season associate for the team.

Hunter-Reay, who won at Barber two weeks ago, started third and finished sixth at Long Beach last spring. “It was a weird day (Friday), just never really got a rhythm with the stoppages and the couple of incidents out there,” said Hunter-Reay, referring to three separate crashes that brought out red flags during the second practice. “I really didn’t get to see who was involved and what happened, but it took a little bit of time out of what we were trying to accomplish with the car.

“Again, it’s just great to be on track here. Always love Long Beach, always love getting back in the rhythm of this racetrack, and unfortunately Mike (Conway) likes it, too. It’s a good time out there, we’re always just pushing each other. We didn’t get enough work done that we wanted to heading into qualifying, but we’ll get it done in the morning hopefully in Practice 3 and look forward to qualifying.”

Defending race-winner Will Power was third-quick in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevy at 1:09.5166/101.915 mph, followed by rookie Tristan Vautier (1:09.5657/101.843 mph)in the No. 55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara/Honda and IndyCar Series point-leader Helio Castroneves (1:09.6608/101.704 mph)in the No. 3 Auto Club Team Penske Dallara/Chevy.

Hinchcliffe topped the opening session at 1:09.815 in his No. 27 GoDaddy.com Dallara/Chevy.  Conway was second-quick at 1:09.8290 while Takuma Sato – who replaced Conway at Foyt Racing – was third at 1:10.0180 in the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda.

Open-wheel veteran Paul Tracy’s induction into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame didn’t sink in until the ever-popular Canadian took a stroll along the street course where he forged many of his Indy-car memories.

“My first race in an Indy-car was (at Long Beach) in 1991 with Dale Coyne and my first win was here,” said Tracy, 42. “I was walking across the bridge and said to myself, ‘Man, where did all the time go?’ I still feel as young as ever. I want to thank all the great teams I’ve driven for, all the teammates, all the competitors that have spurred me on and the conflict that has spurred me on. I’m honored to be in this group in the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame.”

Tracy, whose four Long Beach victories are tied with Mario Andretti for second to Al Unser Jr. (six), was joined by Adrian Fernandez during the eighth annual induction ceremony. Previous inductees include Jimmy Vasser, Scott Pruett, Galles Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Brian Redman, Newman/Haas Racing, Chris Pook, Parnelli Jones and Gary Gabelich.

Tracy won the 1990 Indy Lights race on the Long Beach temporary street circuit and recorded CART victories in 1993, 2000, 2003 and ’04. The 2003 win was among seven during the season en route to his series title. Tracy is tied with Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti for seventh on the all-time victory list with 31.

“You can’t have a great race without having a great city to host it,” Tracy said. “I want to thank Long Beach for everything that it does; it’s one of the marquee races in the world and a place that I’ve been very lucky to have won here four times.”

Fernandez, one of Mexico’s most popular athletes in any sport, made his open-wheel debut at Long Beach in 1993. In 11 appearances, his career best-finish was second in 2003. He logged 11 victories in Champ Car and the IZOD IndyCar Series, including three during the 2004 season.

“I’m humbled to accept this special gift,” said Fernandez, who has been a driver, team-owner and manager/agent. “As a driver, you put forth all this effort for more than three decades and it’s been a fantastic ride. Long Beach has always been a fantastic race and a ‘home’ track. I remember coming here and seeing so many Mexican fans. It’s always been the jewel of Indy-car street races.”

Ryan Briscoe is spectating this weekend as a guest of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, in anticipation of his one-off ride with the team for next month’s 97th edition of the Indianapolis 500. That deal was confirmed last week, and Briscoe – who spent the last five IndyCar seasons at Team Penske – is savoring the opportunity.

“It’s obviously a very exciting time for me, returning to where it all started for me in Indy-car,” said Briscoe, who qualified his Dallara/Chevrolet on-pole at Long Beach last year before serving a 10 grid-spot penalty for an engine change. “I had a great experience with Ganassi at the Indy 500 (finished 10th in 2005); we had a great month. I just can’t wait to come back. We’re certainly going to hit this month and try to make the most of it.”

Meanwhile, Briscoe reiterated his commitment to Level 5 Motorsports in the American Le Mans Series’ final season before its merger with Grand-Am beginning in 2014 as United SportsCar Racing. The Level 5 squad of team-owner Scott Tucker, Briscoe and Marino Franchitti – cousin of four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario –took the LMP2 class victory in their HPD ARX-03b during last month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

“I have committed myself to Level 5 racing for this year,” Briscoe said. “We have a great program together with a couple of cars going to Le Mans (for the 24 Hours in June) and doing the American Le Mans Series. So for this year, with Indy with these guys, that’s a huge bonus to me to add that.”

Briscoe insisted he is not bitter about his release from Team Penske, which could not land sponsorship for the full 2013 IndyCar season. Briscoe, who won on the road-course last summer at Sonoma, Calif., finished sixth in the final 2012 point standings.

“It’s just the way it went,” said Briscoe, who qualified on-pole at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May en route to a fifth-place finish. “I am definitely a very positive-natured person and this gives me the opportunity to do Le Mans this year, which is a huge event and otherwise I wouldn’t be able to. This deal probably wouldn’t have come about if things would have gone differently. So maybe this is meant to be. I’m excited. I’m very happy with the way that things are going. Every time I’m in a race car, every time I am with the team, whoever it is, I just want to do my best and make my best impression and move forward.”

Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, expects Briscoe to be a solid teammate to IndyCar regulars Franchitti, two-time champ Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball.

“What Chip Ganassi racing has always been about, truthfully, is trying to have drivers at the caliber of Ryan drive our race cars,” Hull said. “So with that itself it’s important to us to have an accomplished, a very very well represented race car driver. And now we have a fourth one for the Indy 500. And that will help us with the partnerships we have with the drivers and the teams in order to get the most out of the extended practices we have there. Every day is a practice day there until we qualify.”

Carlos Munoz extended his streak of pacing the field in practice, qualifying and the race during Friday’s initial session for the Firestone Indy Lights Long Beach 100. Munoz, driver of the No. 26 Dialy-Ser car for Andretti Autosport, moved to the top of the time sheet with about a minute left in the session with a lap of 1 minute, 15.1004-seconds/94.338 mph.

“It helps that I have experience from last year,” Munoz said. “It helps me a lot. I know the circuit now, I know what I need. I have more confidence in the car so I need less time to adapt to the circuit. I have a great car, compared to last year we’ve improved the car a lot so that’s why we were on top. It was a good practice.

“Last year I finished fifth in the race and qualified fourth. We had a great car, but it’s really easy to do mistakes in this circuit. There were a lot of red flags last year, and in this session there was two red flags because of crashes. So it’s easy to do a mistake; that’s the main key – don’t do any mistakes. It’s a difficult circuit so it’s going to be a tough race.”

Teams have one practice left before Saturday’s qualifying. Sunday’s Long Beach 100 will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network at 3 p.m. (EDT), immediately preceding the IndyCar Series race broadcast.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 20 2013
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