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Conor Daly’s year-long audition for a full-time IndyCar ride

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Conor Daly’s year-long audition for a full-time IndyCar ride
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Sep 6, 2019, 11:48 PM

Conor Daly has impressed at every IndyCar race weekend in which he’s played an active role this year, and few of his peers could claim the same. Ahead of only his seventh start of the season – spread across three different teams – Daly explains to David Malsher why he’s better prepared than ever to take advantage of a full-time opportunity in 2020.

If Daly’s 2019 season in the NTT IndyCar Series is an audition for 2020, he could scarcely have done a better job of proving himself to the judges. He started the year with nothing, but such had been Daly’s positive impact on his 2018 Indy 500 sponsor, the U.S. Air Force’s recruitment arm, while piloting a difficult one-off entry at the Speedway, he was able to revive that relationship and this time took his funding to Andretti Autosport-Honda for the 103rd running of the Memorial Day Weekend classic.

Now equipped with a front-running car and surrounded by engineers, strategists and teammates who know how to win the biggest race in the world, Conor was not overwhelmed by the experience. Quite the opposite, in fact. He learned, responded and made a strong impression, qualifying 11th and finishing 10th having raced comfortably in the top five.

Then suddenly, not long before the DXC 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in early June, another opportunity came his way. Max Chilton, who had failed to qualify for the 500, quit oval racing (possibly just until the aeroscreens are installed) and a berth opened up at Carlin Racing-Chevrolet, a team in its sophomore IndyCar season. Daly leapt at the chance and finished 11th at TMS, 13th in the Iowa 300 and 11th at Pocono (below).

 

Photo by: Gregg Feistman / LAT Images

Then came Gateway’s World Wide Technology Raceway Park where he revived memories of his startling fifth place for AJ Foyt Racing in 2017. Now as then, Daly showed the right blend of speed, aggression, patience and incisiveness around the 1.25-mile oval to mix it with cars from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. He wound up sixth, a result sadly overshadowed by Sebastien Bourdais’ faux pas and the Santino Ferrucci vs Josef Newgarden controversy.

By then, Daly had been confirmed to drive a USAF-backed fifth Andretti car again, this time in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca yet fate would decree that wouldn’t be his first IndyCar road course venture of the season. Last week IndyCar rookie Marcus Ericsson was called up by Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team to be on standby should the mildly injured Kimi Raikkonen be unable to start the Belgian Grand Prix.

As the Swede prepared to head for Spa-Francorchamps, Daly got the call to sub for him in the #7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda. This was a return visit for Conor: he had piloted an SPM car more than four years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of James Hinchcliffe’s fearful injuries incurred at Indy. Daly had scored an impressive sixth place at Detroit. Now at Portland he was teaming up with his pal and trying to make a similar impression.

“Three teams in one year…” this writer ventured on spying him at Portland last Thursday. “Yeah, not how I saw my career going,” Daly cheerfully replied, “but here we are. Never driven here before, so another learning curve – but I’m used to that by now…”

The Noblesville, IN. native did himself and the Arrow SPM team proud, despite having just two races of experience with Dallara’s universal aerokit in road/street course form – and that from a year ago in the as yet unproven Harding Steinbrenner Racing team. Over the course of practice at the 1.964-mile Portland International Raceway, Daly slashed at his initial pace deficit to teammate Hinchcliffe, until he ended up qualifying a mere 0.0192sec and one place behind him, ninth on the grid. He’d peaked at exactly the right moment.

“Qualifying was the goal – you don’t get any trophies for practice,” he explains a few days later. “Even in second practice when we get to run the reds [Firestone alternate compound tires], the red flag came out right away for an incident, so I didn’t get to use them until my third run, which was in the middle of pitstop practice. So I didn’t even get a fair shot then.”

Managing reds – knowing just how much more grip they can offer, not overstepping the limit and avoiding abusing them on the warm-up lap – is not an easy thing to master, even for a driver such as Daly who has 28 previous road/street course IndyCar races under his wheels.

Explaining his impressive run, he says: “I remembered what the reds do, and efficient tire usage has been what I’ve focused on a lot in my career. I’ve got a good idea about the amount you can trust in a new set of tires. Even in the Lamborghini [Super Trofeo] series I’ve been competing in this year, you can get just one ultimate lap out of those Pirellis, and it was the same in GP2 [now Formula 2].

"Well, the Firestone reds have that same characteristic on most tracks. I think that’s why we’re always surprised by Will Power: he’s got such good feel for what the limit is on a new tire for that one lap of ultimate grip, and I’ve always tried to do the same.”

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Sadly, Daly’s efforts came to naught: at the drop of the green on raceday, Graham Rahal triggered a Lap 1/Turn 1 crash that eliminated both Arrow SPM machines. But a couple of days later, Conor was in philosophical mood, knowing that he’d done himself justice in less than ideal circumstances. That said, for Daly, “ideal circumstances” has come to mean any time he can get in an IndyCar. He is, after all, trying to prove himself worthy of a full-time ride.

“Exactly,” he agrees. “I mean, that Portland race was strictly a job as a late substitute but, yeah, I always have to be at my best, as someone who doesn’t have full-time or long-term deal with anyone. No matter what team I’m with – Arrow SPM, Carlin, Andretti – I have to perform as best I can so I don’t stay just a substitute driver going forward. Hopefully people see what I’m doing and recognize me as good enough to be signed up full-time.”

While Daly seems to have the right personality to attract sponsors, the amenability necessary to woo fans and the speed required by a strong team, he’s learned that by September there are very few paid rides left available for the following season, and he’s never had the money to score a full-time seat. He was paid for his services at Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and AJ Foyt Racing in ’17: the rest of the time he’s relied on sportscar racing to earn his daily bread, while trying to generate interest at and away from the track. Confronted with that reality, a ride with Arrow McLaren Racing SP for 2020 would presumably be the prime target.

“We know that McLaren-SPM very much want to choose their driver,” he says, “and that’s going to be a great opportunity. The team’s grown a lot since I was last there, they have more people in place, and there’s an engineering trailer they didn’t have in 2015. It’s awesome to see what they’ve done and the progress they’ve made. It’s a very high-level operation and an incredible group of people and last weekend I felt surrounded by all the tools needed to maximize the opportunity, even though it had been a rush.

“Other than that, there needs to be a funding element anywhere you go, whether it’s a third seat at Rahal [Letterman Lanigan Racing] or any team that could add a car.”

Seeing the U.S. Air Force motivated to run an Andretti Autosport-mounted Daly again in the season finale is obviously an endorsement of the series, but it’s also a hope-providing approval of its 27-year-old driver. Over the last few years we’ve seen the National Guard ditch IndyCar and NASCAR sponsorships and the U.S. Army even ended its relationship with Tony Schumacher, one of this century’s NHRA drag racing superstars. Yet the U.S. Air Force sees value in being represented by Daly in a competitive IndyCar and that’s gratifying even for objective onlookers.

“Yeah, the U.S. Air Force have been super-supportive of me, and displayed a level of commitment and loyalty that I’m so grateful for,” he says. “Adding an extra race at Laguna Seca is a considerable budget addition for them, so I really appreciate that. And this whole thing came from them – I hadn’t even mentioned the idea of running Laguna Seca because I assumed they had their budget set and my next chance to work with them may be next year’s Indy 500, if I was lucky. Again, nothing’s certain, budgets can get realigned, rearranged and so on.

 

Photo by: Bill Gulker

“But I guess they had some budget free up and they had enquired with Andretti Autosport about what it would take to get another race. I had no idea they were doing that but it all happened within three days – all of a sudden, I got brought to the shop. Very cool that they saw a benefit in doing more IndyCar races, and it’s nice that they’ve told me they appreciate what I do. It’s important to be the right brand ambassador, and I’m super-thankful for their commitment.

“It certainly helps being with Michael Andretti’s team because they have a great business team and relationship-development team there – as well as preparing great racecars, obviously. I don’t know where that leaves us going forward, but U.S. Air Force are clearly feeling they’re getting a good return on investment, in terms of the recruitment drive. What they’re spending is working, and they’re doing it in a smart and calculated way. They’re not spending the absurd amounts of money that you saw from other military sponsorship investments.”

Daly fans and IndyCar fans in general will hope that relationship blossoms. For the man himself, the only target right now is to give a great account of himself on and off the track at WTR Laguna Seca. Mentally, he seems better equipped to do that than ever before. Despite a season sprinkled with last-minute cameos, one in which he’ll have started just seven of the 17 rounds, this is Conor’s most convincing year yet at this level.

“I hope so, I hope it’s moved the needle a little bit,” he says. “‘Moving the needle’ is a phrase I’ve used a lot because all I’ve tried to do is deliver the best results and also stay reliable – you know, not put a car in the fence, or in a risky position. There’s been a lot of drivers who’ve made mistakes this year and I’m thankful we haven’t been one of them. I want to be one of those guys who people recognize can deliver good results but also not bouncing the car off the walls. This year has certainly helped and I agree, it’s been one of the strongest of my IndyCar career and it’s only been six races so far.

“After 2017 [a difficult season at Foyt’s squad] I had a year where there wasn’t a lot going on – the 500 with a program that I thought was going to be more than it was, and then a short period with Harding Steinbrenner. I think that’s made me appreciate every opportunity and made me focus on every single lap that I do, quite honestly.

"So if I do happen to get a chance to be full-time again, I reckon I’m ready to deliver right from the start of the season in St. Petersburg, first run out. I mean, there could even be the chance to test in the preseason! That would be nice… or use a simulator: I’ve had one day in a sim this year, just before the 500. These teams are using simulators a lot more and I think it would be super-helpful for a driver, more now than in any other era.

“With that kind of opportunity, I don’t think a team would have to wait around for me to be competitive: I could be right there, fighting for podiums from St. Pete if there is a chance to sign up for a full ride early into this preseason.”

 

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

Daly has never sounded more dedicated and determined and, taking into account his career overall, that takes some special resilience. He is, after all, the driver whom Sam Schmidt rated on par with Josef Newgarden in terms of speed and superior in terms of polish, back when they teamed up occasionally in Indy Lights back in 2011. Josef, focused solely on the Road to Indy, ran out an easy winner of the Lights crown that year, while Conor started just five races (scoring a win and a pole) as he was simultaneously trying to build a career in Europe.

Eight years on, Newgarden is a Team Penske driver, possibly on the cusp of a second IndyCar championship, while Daly’s highlight has been finishing an impressive third in the 2013 GP3 Series [now Formula 3 European Championship]. Given that he’s still seeking some kind of job security, he’s honest enough to admit that he mentally swings back and forth when judging his career so far.

“Sometimes I regret going to Europe, other times I’m pleased that’s the path I took,” says Daly. “There’s a lot that I can be proud of. Alex [Rossi] and I are still the only American drivers to have won on the GP3 or GP2 platform in the last 10 years. And I’m always pleased to be able to say that I fought for championships with guys that are now doing great things in Formula 1, like Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly, or in Formula E like Mitch Evans or Daniel Abt.

“Do I sometimes regret leaving the American scene for a few years? Yeah, absolutely, because I think my IndyCar career would be that much further forward now. But I still think it was a great experience in Europe and it made sense at the time.

“Anyway, it’s nothing I can go back and change now: I just have to keep pushing ahead and focus on Laguna Seca. That’s literally how I have to live – looking at what’s directly in front of me. Obviously one of my teammates there is Alex who’s going for the championship, but for me it’s another chance with a fantastically well-funded team and I know that people like potential employers or sponsors are waiting to see how well I do there. It’s everyone’s last race for a while, and it’s my last chance to make a really strong impression ahead of the off-season.

“I never like to set specific targets because obviously it depends on how Andretti Autosport is doing as a whole. Like, if I qualify fifth, that sounds great and I’d be happy – but not if the four cars that beat me are the other four Andretti cars! It’s context, right?

“It sounds funny to say, but actually one of the things that I’m most excited about for this race is the fact that it’s a four-day weekend – the Thursday [Sept. 19] is an open test. I really think that’s super- important for someone like me who hasn’t had a lot of seat time this year compared with most of the grid. It’s another tool I can use to help me give my best when it comes down to getting the most out of qualifying which will hopefully have a big effect on how we race.”

And that, in turn, will hopefully have a big effect on Daly’s IndyCar prospects. Shining as he has in a year of regular upheaval makes you wonder what he might achieve should he rediscover some continuity in a team that reciprocates his burgeoning commitment.

 

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Drivers Conor Daly
Author David Malsher