Conor Daly has spent much of his Indycar career securing temporary drives and moving from team-to-team where needs met.
World in Motorsport spoke with Daly during a fast-paced season that saw him switch back-and-forth between two squads, secure his first Indycar pole and several top ten’s in his first full season in the sport since 2017.
Inconsistent. If there was one word to describe the nature of Conor Daly’s career up until now, it might probably be inconsistent.
That’s not a criticism of his performances, but rather an acknowledgement of the path his racing career has taken so far.
“It’s crazy man, crazy. It’s tough, because I’ve never had the luxury of controlling my own destiny,” admits Daly. It is not a subject that the 28-year-old shies away from, but where the younger Daly may have allowed frustrated to overcome him, the current, more mature man is rather phlegmatic and is better for it. “Some drivers, when they have sponsorship support, they can control their own destinies and they know what they have got and where they can go with that. I haven’t really had that luxury ever.”
Making his Indycar series debut back in 2013, while simultaneously competing in the GP3 Series, Daly has never truly enjoyed the stable environment necessary to allow his career to flourish. He stayed in Europe the following year, but a disastrous campaign with the woefully underfunded and underprepared Venezuela GP Lazarus team finally ended his Formula One ambition and Daly returned to the US in 2015. In that time, he has driven for seven teams, including two separate stints with AJ Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsport respectively.
Such is the epileptic nature of Daly’s Indycar career, the Indianapolis native has only twice enjoyed full-season agreements (2016 with Dale Coyne and 2017 with Foyt). “It’s definitely tough to make sure you are absolutely performing at your highest level in times where you might know two days before you get into a car that you are going to race it, but that’s sort of what I ended up getting used to and that’s how I’ve lived my life over the last few years.”
He has also taken in stints at Harding Racing, Andretti Autosport and latterly Carlin Motorsport and Ed Carpenter Racing, with confirmation of some of the drives have come at very short notice; however, he does take some positives from his experience so far. “It feels like it’s helped me get up to speed quicker. I’ll be able to use some of what I’ve learned over the past couple of years and hopefully be full-time for a long time to come.”
Daly’s part-time relationship with Carlin began in 2019, when the team’s eponymous owner asked the American to fill in for Max Chilton when it came to the series’ oval races, with the latter having stepped away, but Daly is keen to emphasise that a large dose of luck played into his hands. “Last year only having the Indy 500 on my schedule, Trevor Carlin had made me aware, even before the Indy 500, that Max Chilton might not be interested in competing on the ovals anymore.” A free agent, Daly stepped into Chilton’s vacant seat, securing a best finish of 6th at Gateway.
There is a previous relationship between driver and team, with Daly having raced for Carlin in GP3 in 2011. The respect between them is clear cut, with Daly praising the Englishman and his team. “I really like Trevor, he is a great team owner, they’ve got a great team there.”
Despite the uncertainty that has followed his path, Daly has latterly found consistency on the sponsorship side of his career, particularly with US Airforce – a partnership which is now in its third season. “Every year, it’s been a bigger investment into the series, the sport and myself, so the numbers they’re getting out of it when it comes to return [on investment] is good.” Although this partnership is proving fruitful for all parties, growing it beyond its present is a difficult task given the current economic climate at a time when motorsport is far from being a primary sport in the United States.
Daly concedes that the biggest challenge is to get people who don’t know enough about racing to really take it seriously. “[Its about getting] around that first wall of, ‘Well, this racing, it’s good, but we’ve got an NBA team, or NFL team, we’re fine.’” Although confirming that the series still lacks mainstream awareness and appeal, Daly sounds confident, telling World in Motorsport that the key is about, “trying to figure out what [partners] want and what they need.”
There is little doubt that the reunification of the Indycar Series in 2008 has helped the cause for drivers and teams a great deal. With a sense of balance and certainty, confidence has returned to the series, although audience attention for Indycar is a long way from its peak during the CART days of the early-90s. “The best part about Indycar right now is the product is not the problem. We know that we put on a great show. We need to make sure that more people are aware that Indycar is happening and that it is a great product. The series has done a great job formatting the rules, formatting the aerodynamic rules and how the cars work to make that a great product,” enthuses Daly.
Indycar is still far from the peak it enjoyed in the early-90s, and although Daly had some sponsorship to play with over the 2019/2020 winter, he knew he was still somewhat short on backing to fulfil a full season schedule.
Following discussions with Carpenter Racing, the 28-year-old signed with Indiana-based team to compete on the series’ road and street courses, while the team boss took the seat for the six oval events. “Ed [Carpenter] had an idea of what he wanted to do and what he needed and the US Air Force fitted in perfectly with his number 20 car for the road and street courses and a third car for the Indy 500, so I found myself saying, ‘Alright, you know what, this is going to be great. This is going to be the majority of the season – it’s not the full season, but it’s going to be with a great team.”
However, as the beginning of the season drew in, Daly once again received a request from Carlin to fill in on the ovals, bringing a potentially awkward situation to the fore. Thankfully, it was a situation solved with relative ease. “I talked to Ed about it and said, ‘Hey look, this is an awkward conversation to have. I know driving for two teams in one season is not ideal’, but Ed was cool with it. Ed knows that I want to compete for Indycar championships, I want to compete every weekend, every day on track, I want to be there, and it just worked out perfectly. I’ve got to thank Trevor and Ed for letting me do that and the teams have been really nice.” While some would consider it a distraction, Daly does consider it an advantage to work with two teams simultaneously, learning from each entity with every event.
For Daly right now, he is clearly enjoying his current Indycar stint in the series. “I really enjoy what Indycar is doing and I hope as we continue here and get out of this pandemic, we will continue to expand the schedule and continue to get to new tracks and new places and hopefully some new countries as well and see what happens as we keep going.”
The work for 2021 started long ago, and Daly will be hoping to build on his 2020 season with another full campaign – whether that will be with one team or two remains to be seen.
For the full version of this discussion with Romain Grosjean, as well as conversations with Rubens Barrichello, Conor Daly and WRC’s Richard Millener, Yves Matton, Andrea Adamo and Colin Clark, check back for the next issue of World in Motorsport – coming soon.