Long Beach starts Mike Conway’s continental hopping Indy/sports car world tour

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Although his St. Petersburg race was foiled by a miscommunication, look for Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter Racing to rebound this weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Conway enters the weekend in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet as one of seven past Long Beach winners, and additionally one of five drivers who scored their first career win on the historic streets in one of the 39 prior editions of the race.

His 2011 win for Andretti Autosport was something of a surprise, but it marked his territory as a future star to watch in IndyCar and also put his name in the record books for North America’s most prestigious street race.

“I had heard about the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as I was growing up in England but I didn’t know the magnitude of the event,” Conway said in the team’s pre-race release. “I was on the top of the podium after my win and I looked down at the names in victory lane who had won there. And I said, ‘Bloody hell, there was a great list of drivers who have won at Long Beach.'”

A year ago, he was drafted into Long Beach as a last-minute third car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, then promptly was quick in Friday practice and stuck the car in the Firestone Fast Six for qualifying on Saturday. That performance turned heads considering he had opted to end a full-time IndyCar career to focus solely on road and street courses, and quit ovals.

For Conway, this weekend starts a crazy stretch of action across continents as he balances his IndyCar commitments with ECR along with his duties in an LMP2 class ORECA 03 Nissan for Millennium Racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship over each of the next five weeks. Conway will share the No. 23 Millennium car with ex-F1 shoes Stefan Johansson and Shinji Nakano.

Conway races at Long Beach this weekend, then heads to his home country to race the FIA WEC curtain-raiser in Silverstone on April 20. April 27 is back to the ECR IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park, in what will be his first natural terrain road course race in an IndyCar since Sonoma 2012 (all his 2013 and the first two 2014 races were on street courses). Then it’s back to the WEC for Spa on May 4, and then the five-week stretch concludes May 10 with the ECR IndyCar in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

In those five races, expect Conway to get at least one win, perhaps an additional podium finish or two and a heck of a lot of frequent flier miles. A Long Beach repeat of his 2011 triumph would not be a bad place to start.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”