What Defines Bravery?

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As I mentioned on Monday, I feel the need to comment on what is now fairly old news. That is the announcement by driver Mike Conway that he is no longer comfortable about driving on the ovals, as he stepped out of AJ Foyt’s car just a few days prior to last Saturday’s season-ending race. Actually, I’m not commenting on the announcement itself. Instead, it’s the reaction that the announcement generated.

When I first heard about Conway’s decision, it barely generated a shrug from me. The two things that ran through my mind were that he sure left his team hanging without much notice, and that his IndyCar career was probably toast. Almost a week later, I still feel that way on both counts, but I never really considered the possibility that this would become a polarizing sociological discussion on the internet.

John Lingle, the newest contributor to More Front Wing, wrote an interesting post last week where he discussed the myriad of reactions that the announcement generated. Some lauded Conway as a brave hero, while others vilified him as a coward that deserved nothing short of a lynching. John presented a logical argument that the truth was probably somewhere in between. However, John decried those that described Conway’s decision and subsequent announcement as a sign of bravery. Personally, I agreed with John’s assessment. I had also noticed on Twitter and comment sections of other blogs and websites that Conway was hailed as “a brave man that had the courage to face his demons head-on” among other over-the-top accolades. Many blog posts were written with the theme of praising Conway for his courage and bravery.

It is not my goal here to defend John or to regurgitate what he has already written. Nor is it my intention to stir the pot, even though some of the reaction has stirred my pot. I’ve read and heard extreme reactions from both ends of the spectrum. I think those of us in the middle should also be heard.

I’ve always been impressed with Mike Conway, even before he came back from his horrific crash on the last lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500. His stoic demeanor always set well with me in an age of self-indulgent attitudes that are so prevalent in sports. Nothing seemed to rattle him or get him overly excited. He just did his job and did it very well.

Although he missed the remainder of the 2010 season, he resurfaced with Andretti Autosport in 2011. His first two outings were forgettable, but he won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in impressive fashion and followed that up with a solid sixth place finish at São Paulo. Unfortunately, he and teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Andretti bought Hunter-Reay back into the race by displacing Bruno Junqueira from AJ Foyt’s second car; while Conway was left sitting on the sidelines on race day to ponder the situation.

After the debacle at Indianapolis, Hunter-Reay went on to a solid seventh place season finish for 2011 and a championship season in 2012. Conway’s fortunes took a different turn. He never fared better than eighth for the remainder of the 2011 season, finished a disappointing seventeenth in the standings and was out of a job at the end of the season. He landed at AJ Foyt Enterprises – a decided drop in the pecking order of team status. There were some bright moments – he landed on the podium at Toronto along with a seventh place finish at Barber. But there were also the finishes that have become far too common at Foyt’s team. With the DNS at Fontana, Conway finished twenty-first in the 2012 point standings.

After the terrifying Turn Three crash at Indianapolis that caused him to miss the remainder of the 2010 season, Conway witnessed the fatal crash involving Dan Wheldon on the oval at Las Vegas. After failing to qualify in his return to Indianapolis following his 2010 crash, Conway qualified twenty-ninth in this year’s 500. After a strong run through the first part of the race, Conway crashed in Turn One – again finding his car thrown violently into the catch-fencing as he took out an innocent Will Power.

This time, Conway escaped serious injury. He seemed none too worse for wear as he finished ninth the following week at Belle Isle. In the next three ovals at Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa; Conway finished sixteenth, sixteenth and twentieth respectively – not really setting the world on fire, but also giving no indication that he had developed a deep-rooted fear of oval racing.

Then he made his announcement and the pontificating started. Again, my biggest problem with the whole deal was that he left his team scrambling for a replacement at Fontana, while his sponsors were in limbo. He put everyone associated with AJ Foyt’s team in a tough position. This wasn’t cowardly on Conway’s part, but it was selfish. His selfishness affected many, many people.

Some will say that it’s easy for me to criticize Conway from a keyboard. In my opinion, no one that can strap themselves into the cockpits of these machines and consistently drive them at speeds at well over two-hundred miles per hour can possibly be called a coward. There was obviously something else driving Conway toward his curious timing.

But to get back to John’s point, I see nothing about Conway’s decisions or action that merit praise for bravery. I can’t say that I envy him for getting to tell AJ Foyt face-to-face that he was too scared to drive on ovals anymore – but this was not a brave move. To get back to the person that said he admired Conway for bravely facing his demons head-on – I feel quite the opposite. I think Conway ran away from his demons.

My definition of bravery is to run toward and embrace something that common-sense tells you to avoid. Firefighters know that imminent danger awaits them as they run into a burning house, yet they do it anyway. Those that choose to serve in our armed forces are fully aware of what they are getting into, yet they sign up anyway. That is bravery.

Although this is a weak comparison to driving an IndyCar, I have my own example of overcoming fear. I’ve shared my experiences with public speaking here before. For years, I had no problem speaking in public. Then one day, over twenty years ago, I was in a corporate meeting in Chicago. When I was in the middle of a presentation, without warning – I felt my knees go weak and my throat close up as sweat immediately started running down my forehead. I was in the midst of a full-blown panic attack, although I had never come close to having one before. For the next several years, I had a monumental fear of public speaking – afraid that those symptoms might return and they sometimes did. I avoided every opportunity to speak before a group. Finally, I realized that the only way to ever overcome those fears was to force myself to do it. It wasn’t pretty, but I persevered and got over it. It’s a good thing, because nowadays my job requires me to speak to large groups one or two times a week. Of course, there was no chance for me or someone else to be fatally injured if I did a poor job while overcoming those fears, but you get the idea.

As Conway realized he was no longer comfortable on ovals, the brave thing would have been to get out of his comfort zone and continue to drive them – thereby facing his demons. Instead, he gave in to his fears and left his team stranded. From what I understand, fear is a normal emotion in a racecar. AJ Foyt, himself, has scoffed at the bravado of some drivers that say they’ve never been scared in a car. He says he was scared to death numerous times. He recounts his first Indianapolis 500 in 1958, when there was a massive pileup on the opening lap and popular driver Pat O-Connor lost his life. He said to himself that “this game might be a little too rough for AJ Foyt”. But obviously, it wasn’t. Foyt overcame those fears to return the next year and many more after that, amassing four Indianapolis 500 victories, sixty-seven Champ car wins and seven USAC championships along the way. That’s what I call bravely facing your demons head-on.

Had I been in Mike Conway’s shoes, I might have handled things differently. If those fears were foremost in my mind, I think I would have somehow managed to get through Saturday night’s race and then retire. It’s not as if he was not a competent driver on ovals. Late in the 2010 Indianapolis 500, he led late in the race. That doesn’t happen by chance. The end-result on his career would have been the same. I seriously doubt he will ever drive an IndyCar again. To his credit, I understand that he stayed at Fontana to help get his replacement, Wade Cunningham, acclimated. In all of the public crucifying of Conway, that’s one bit of information that has slid under the radar.

So almost a week later, my reaction is the same as it was a week ago. Mike Conway is not a villain or a coward. Nor is he the new-age definition of bravery. He is someone that simply did what he had to do, regardless of what it meant to his career. I wish him well.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “What Defines Bravery?”

  1. Mike Conway’s announcement is more an act of honesty. It is a hard choice for anyone to openly admit that they cannot or do not want to continue doing something that bothers them for whatever reason. He could have easily walked away without a word being said and left the speculation to others as to why. It does take courage to admit fears, no matter what they may be. And it takes courage to tell AJ as well. Good luck Mike Conway on your future, whatever path it may take.

  2. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    “As Conway realized he was no longer comfortable on ovals, the brave thing would have been to get out of his comfort zone and continue to drive them – thereby facing his demons.”

    “My definition of bravery is to run toward and embrace something that common-sense tells you to avoid.”

    I do see where you are coming from George, but in this instance I must respectfully disagree. There are times when bravery may mean running toward the fire (as it were), but bravery also means knowing when to stop and acknowledging one’s best senses and intuition.

    In this instance, it may be a mistake to believe that Mike was suddenly uncomfortable on ovals. It’s quite conceivable that he has had this discomfort (albeit unrecognised) for quite some time, inadvertantly leading to below par performances on ovals.

    Sometimes when the fear hits and is finally recognised, it is best to stop. In fact, it is my belief in that situation it’s best for all concerned that a driver stop there and then. It is good and realistic that drivers maintain some sort of fear when driving on ovals, but if that fear becomes overpowering, then that driver becomes a danger not only to himself, but to all others around him.

    That’s why I consider Mike’s decision commendable. I wish him all the best in his future.

    • I agree completely, with both you and Jim Gallo.

      • This is exactly it. Once Conway knew he couldn’t get run an oval, he had no business doing so, even if it was 5 minutes before the race. To be consumed by fear when you’ve got the rest of the field around you (and are thus responsible for their safety if you screw up) would invite disaster.
        It’s a brave man who realizes that. Period.

  3. I agree 100%. As I wrote on my blog, though in much less detail, I didn’t find anything brave or heroic about what Conway did. And honestly, my thoughts on Conway were not and are not very kind.

  4. I completely agree with what Jim Gall0 and Leigh O’Gorman wrote above. I was hoping against hope that George would not regurgitate this matter. I wish Mike Conway all the best.

  5. Some of you already know my thoughts, but I will post them again. Conway, in my opinion, let the team down and didn’t follow through on his commitment. It is also a not so well kept secret that he was wary of ovals back in May. I have no problem with Conway not wanting to race ovals and I don’t think of him as brave or scared. But, he left his team in the lurch on the LAST race when he could have fessed up earlier in the year. However, It seems he wanted to race the road and street courses on AJ’s dime knowing all along that he would quit the week before Fontana. That is how it looks to me, but YMMV.

  6. John Lingle Says:

    Well put and a very logical argument George. Obviously this will never be an issue that everyone will agree on, but I find the poll results telling. It appears there are many more out there who agree with us, but just dont want to face criticism for their opinion.

    I hope that Mike Conway considers a drive in the American Lemans series. Ithink his career could benefit greatly from a change from open wheel to sports cars. I think he could be a great shoe in the P1 or P2 class there. Part time INDYCAR operations arent very successful, so I think it could be his best bet for wins going forward.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I’m pretty much in agreement with George and others who place Conway’s decision in the middle of commendable and condemnable. I see every reason to respect Conway’s decision, but no reason to laud it as brave or courageous.

    When I first heard Conway’s decision, it reminded me of the 2001 CART-Texas Motor Speedway fiasco and I stated as much in the comments of last Friday’s Oilpressure column. I still think it’s a fair, if imperfect comparison. Both decisions were difficult to make, poorly timed, carried unfortunate consequences for all parties involved, and ultimately the right thing to do.

    The scale is far smaller, but as with CART, Conway faced a tough call and probably waited too long to make it. While both faced and caused several consequences because of their decisions, the biggest consequence for both was a loss of credibility. For CART, that loss of credibility was as a professional organization. For Conway, that loss is as an employable Indycar driver.
    But both parties made the right decision. It was unsafe for CART to race their cars at Texas and it was a bad idea for an uncomfortable Mike Conway to race at Fontana.

    Conway showed a lot of respect for his fellow competitors by deciding not to race. He made a hard decision and he made the right decision, but I don’t think Conway should or even wants to be patted on the back for making a “brave” decision. I wish him the best as he continues his career.

  8. I believe that Mike’s decision was, in fact, a sign of honesty. However, I also think he is brave with regard to the fact that A.J. Foyt could have ripped his head off for the timing of the decision as well as the fact that Foyt drove any car on any track and, I believe, believes today’s drivers should be capable of the same feat.

  9. I too, do not think it is so much about bravery as it was honesty. He was being true to his fear and feelings and as such, should not have put himself and others at risk. His timing, though is near unforgiveable, and I can fully understand why no one in Indycar would give him another ride. Truth be told, despite his talent on road/street circuits, the timing of his announcement will likely give any race team pause before committing themselves and their sponsors to him for full season.

    I thought I also heard that EJ Viso was also expressing concern about oval racing and the lack of downforce, etc. and considered not starting the Fontana race. If true, not much seems to have been made of it.

    As usual, the Foyt team has tons of work to do in the off-season–not that it seems to ever improve much no matter how much they do.

  10. A number of these foreign drivers should not be driving in Indycar because of the lack of their experience on ovals. Rules should be changed so that drivers have a minimum experience on both ovals and road courses before driving in Indy car. If they do not have it, they drive in the Indy Lights series until they have it. That would go a long way to raising interest in the Lights.

    Are you listening Randy?

  11. I’d question Conway’s timing more than his bravery. Anyone who climbs in one of those cars is braver than me.

    The timing was bad–I took it as an editorial about the safety of that particular race. I was concerned about that after the Vegas wreck.

    And I agree with Bob F. Not just about foreign, but any drivers new to Indycar. They should require some minimum amount of experience on ovals in Indy Lights before being allowed to drive the big cars–for their own safety as well as that of other drivers.

  12. I don’t question Conway’s bravery, but I do question his using Foyt to run the twisties and “quiting” on the last race because it was an oval and he wanted none of that. Self centered is what I call it and he used Foyt, the sponsors and the team for his pleasure. Nothing commendable about that.

  13. I do just want to chip in here that say what you will about his timing and decision as a whole (oh, and people have said what they will), I hardly think this was premeditated months in advance. If it were, why would Conway have gone through the trouble to fly out to California and then test the car on Wednesday? If he were going to bag on the team after Baltimore all along, why wouldn’t he have just done so the Tuesday after that race weekend? Had he done that, he could have couched the whole thing as “parting ways with AJFR, so that I can pursue other options”, or some such euphemistic thing, and come off with a fraction of the stink on him that he now has. The timing of the whole thing tells me that Mike intended to race at Fontana, and then either didn’t like how the car was (like, on a huge scale) or just had an epiphany of sorts that he was done on ovals. Anybody who’s seen Days of Thunder knows what I’m talking about. “Get out of that racecar, get out of that racecar…oooooooohhhh.”

    My take on whether or not it was “brave”…well, just read Mr. Skink’s comments above. He said every last bit of it.

    • His ‘epiphany” about ovals was weeks before Fontana and “Days of Thunder” is just a movie.

      • You know that for a fact, bud? The Days of Thunder part, I mean. I thought that was a documentary. I mean, Ned Jarrett and Larry Nuber are in it and all…

        No, really, do you know anything concrete about Conway’s mindset before he got off the plane in Ontario? If so, I think we’re all (and by that, I mean everybody in the IndyCar sphere) curious.

      • IndyCar has a sphere? Yikes!

  14. Conway’s exit wasn’t brave, but I’d call it courageous. It took a lot of courage to step out of an IndyCar seat. Every driver whose been lucky enough to retire on his own terms will say that there comes a moment when you are thinking about your safety, about not getting killed, or not killing someone else, and not about going fast. And that’s the moment to step out. Conway could have faked it, qualified at the back, pulled in with “handling problems”. Instead, he was forthright, honest, honorable. He told the truth. I’ve never been a huge Conway fan, but I do respect him for not endangering other drivers or fans, and for having the balls to tell AJ Foyt that he was stepping out. His IndyCar career is likely over, and that’s probably as it should be. And I’m sure Mike knew that was a likely result, and he still did what he thought, no, what he KNEW was right. Brave? No. Courageous.

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