What Defines Bravery?
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.