The last time Mike Conway was in California, he wanted no part of it. Headed into the season finale on the two-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Conway said the speeds and the danger were just too much to bear, and anyone who saw his horrific crashes at the Indianapolis 500 would know why.
But on Friday in Long Beach, on a temporary street course where Conway feels more at home and considerably more confident, he marked his return to the IZOD IndyCar Series with a stellar performance.
Conway was the second-fastest driver in both the morning and afternoon practices, and seemed to establish Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as a major threat to win the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Conway certainly knows his way around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile track. He won the event in 2011 for team owner Michael Andretti by passing Ryan Briscoe with 14 laps remaining.
But heading into last year's season-ending race in Fontana for owner A.J. Foyt, Conway gave up his ride knowing it might end his career in IndyCar, which prides itself on its mixture of ovals and road and street courses.
"I knew it would make things harder," said Conway, whose season right now consists of one race—driving for Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan. "At end of the day, I wanted to enjoy my driving. I felt really good coming into this one. Good track, good team, exciting times. Not sure what's ahead.
"Couldn't ask for much more really. I wanted to be up there, obviously, in times but to be Top 2 is really encouraging. Obviously, not get complacent and do my homework tonight and make it work tomorrow."
Conway's time in the afternoon practice session of 1 minute 9.4603 seconds was 4/100ths behind former Orange County resident Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose 1:09.4224 converted to an average speed of 102.05 mph, including the track's famous last turn hairpin.
Hunter-Reay, who lived in Dana Point and Newport Beach for eight years, won an 85-lap race in 2010 after starting second, but this year it will be 80 laps, which should eliminate fuel economy as a strategy.
The second 45-minute practice session included only 17 minutes of green flag time because of incidents involving Sebastian Saavedra, Justin Wilson, Scott Dixon and E.J. Viso. That puts the teams under the gun when they practice and attempt to qualify on Saturday, 2 p.m., for the race that begins Sunday, 1:40 p.m., on NBC Sports Network.
Eleven of the 27 drivers were unable to complete as many as 10 laps in the second session. James Hinchcliffe, like Hunter-Reay a driver for Andretti and the winner of the season's first event in St. Petersburg, had the fastest time in the morning practice; his time of 1:09.8157 was slower than eight drivers in the second session.
Behind RHR and Conway on the combined speed chart were two-time winner Will Power, rookie Tristan Vautier, 2001 winner Helio Castroneves, James Jakes, Alex Tagliani, 2009 winner Dario Franchitti, Hinchcliffe and Takuma Sato.
Hunter-Reay said he respected Conway for his decision to leave ovals behind, a decision the 29-year-old Brit made after a horrific season-ending injury in the 2010 Indy 500 and another bad crash in 2012; he failed to make the 2011 race.
After an open test at Fontana the last week of last season, Conway announced the next day he was done with ovals.
In a sport where courage is king, Conway got support from other drivers.
"I wasn't sure what people would say, and wasn't really bothered at the time what they would say even, but it was nice they had my back," Conway said. "That was pretty cool."
Hunter-Reay, who lived in Newport Beach and Dana Point for eight years before moving to Florida, was one of those supporters.
"It's for some people and it's not for others," Hunter-Reay said. "Definitely, doing 225 mph where your head's exposed puts you at a certain risk. He came up in European racing and it's a different mentality on that, on safety too. It's definitely more dangerous here. If he doesn't need to do it and isn't comfortable doing it, and he really wants to road race, we support him in that for sure. He's definitely competitive on the road courses as well, so it's good to have him back.
"(The series) is definitely better with him in it. He's a great driver and on any road or street circuit he could win."