Director Ron Howard is putting the finishing touches to his new Formula One racing movie, Rush, that dramatizes the season-long fight for the World Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976.
That was the year when Lauda barely escaped with his life from a horrible crash and fire at the Nurburgring during the German Grand Prix. He had not wanted to race at the ‘Ring because he was worried about safety but the other drivers voted to go ahead and he went along. Terribly burned, it was almost unbelievable when, just six weeks later, he returned to race in the Italian GP.
The championship went down to the final race in Japan with Hunt trailing Lauda by three points. The race started in a torrential downpour and Lauda called it a day after two laps, saying he considered his life too precious to risk in those conditions, thus losing the championship to Hunt by a single point.
It was called as brave a decision as the one he made to return to the cockpit so soon after his crash in Germany.
I thought of that today when the news arrived from California that Mike Conway had stepped out of the cockpit of A.J. Foyt’s car on the eve of the season-ending race of the IZOD IndyCar Series at California Speedway because he’d decided oval racing was too dangerous. He’s been replaced by Wade Cunningham.
"I'm truly sorry for putting the team and our sponsors in a difficult position, but this is the hardest decision I have ever made in my racing career," said Conway, who missed the 2010 season after being hurt in a crash at the Indianapolis 500 (left). A talented road racer who had success in British F2 and GP2 — Conway finished third in this year’s Honda Indy Toronto — he escaped injury at Indy in May when he had another bad crash.
"I've come to realize I'm not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them,” he said in his statement. “I want to stress that I am not finished racing and to this end, I would love to continue with Foyt Racing, but that's something we need to discuss in the future."
A.J. Foyt’s son Larry Foyt, who runs Foyt Racing, said that he respected Conway's decision.
"Mike's been a great asset to our team, and I'm disappointed that we can't finish out the season together," he said. "However, it took a lot of courage for Mike to come forward and we respect him highly for that and we certainly want to honour his decision."
I have no idea how Conway plans to continue his career, at least in the Indy car series, where oval racing is a fact of life.
And to admit to being scared is not something that goes over well with most oval-track racing fans – or with old oval racers like A.J. Foyt.
Larry Foyt might have said all the right things for public consumption, but you can bet his father was saying something else behind closed doors.
For the Indy fraternity, it’s better to own up to having reservations in advance, rather than to back out later.
Take one of the greatest car designers, builders and mechanics in Indy car racing history, A.J. Watson, who one year in the 1950s built most of the cars that were on the track at Indianapolis.
He tried driving once but never again.
How come? he was asked.
“I suffered from severe stomach problems,” said Watson.
Conway’s departure has taken some of the wind out of the sails of the Indy car finale, in which Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power will fight it out for the series championship.
Instead of only running stories about the championship battle – Power leads Hunter-Reay by a mere 17 points going into the MAVTV 500 (see George’s TV Listings for Race Fans for time and channel) — the major Internet racing sites carried stories about the Foyt driver’s defection, sometimes more prominently.
Although it’s said that there are upwards of 30 different scenarios in which one or the other of Power or Hunter-Reay can win the championship, this is not last week’s NASCAR race for the Chase, in which there was potential for genuine surprise.
In short, Power will win or Hunter-Reay will win and possibly because one will get caught up in a crash or suffer some kind of mechanical difficulty.
If the past is any indicator, Power won’t win because he is not a good oval-track racer. He’s been in this situation before and he's always come out on the low end.
IndyCar’s insane engine-change rule might have an effect, as well. That’s where the driver is penalized 10 starting positions because the people who make the engines don’t do their jobs correctly and the engines just about all have to be changed.
In the case of California, more than half the starting field — 14 drivers, including the two fighting for the title and stars like our own James Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani and Helio Castroneves — will be handed 10-grid-position penalties for unapproved engine changes.
I mean, you want stupid? Cunningham, who doesn’t even race for Foyt but has been called in to fill Conway’s seat, will be penalized 10 grid positions because Foyt changed the car’s engine.
So he’s penalized before he even sits down in the car?
The NASCAR Canadian Tire Series is racing at Riverside Speedway outside Antigonish, N.S., this weekend. It’s unlikely that D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas will win the championship and the title fight will most likely be settled in the season finale next week at Kawartha Speedway outside Peterborough. . . . And unless the weather creates a problem, the eighth annual Canadian Sprint Car Nationals will be held Saturday night at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve outside Brantford. . . . If dirt trackin’ ain’t your style, the British Empire Motor Club’s annual Indian Summer Trophy Races will be held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park at the weekend. A highlight is the annual three-hour enduro-GT Challenge, which will go to the post later on Saturday afternoon.