Whether it’s recalling stories of meeting DJ Marshmellow or rapper Ludacris, perfecting his mullet by “staring at the American flag” or smashing into an errant wheel at almost 200mph, Conor Daly is never far away from drama and excitement.
It’s not always been the easiest of climbs to the summit of IndyCar for the now 29-year-old, but the Indiana native led his first lap at the Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago, and then made it a race-high 40 laps – (which incidentally means Daly now sits equal with Jackie Stewart in the stat for all-time laps led at the Indy 500) – capping off what felt like some sort of breakthrough.
He’s become a proper force when it comes to oval racing, and it’s come at the worst time in recent IndyCar history to be an oval ace with only five such races on the calendar.
For the past three and a bit seasons, Daly has competed for two or more teams trying to establish a full collection of races across a year. In his latest deal which has been with Ed Carpenter Racing for the Indy 500 and road and street courses, and Carlin for the other ovals, he’s excelled in the latter.
When he got proper machinery underneath him in 2019, he bagged an Indy 500 career-best 10th-place with Andretti Autosport, following that up with a sixth place finish at Gateway with Carlin – the team he scored two 11ths and a 13th with earlier in the season on ovals.
After that sixth at Gateway, he worked with the team to improve its damper programme in 2020, which Carlin said he had “radical” ideas for, and which it credited Daly for helping it take even more of a step – one that led to a first IndyCar pole for both parties at Iowa Speedway. Daly also took a sixth at Texas and finished only one race out of five outside the top 10.
The 2021 season has been a lot more difficult for Daly – especially as ECR team-mate Rinus VeeKay has excelled – and heading into Indy things looked bleak.
Daly’s season so far, 19th in points
Barber: On the three-stop strategy that didn’t work. Lost time with a slow first pitstop, finished 16th
St Pete: Qualified 19th, finished 16th, attempted an alternate strategy
Texas (Carlin): Struggled to 21st in race one, launched upside down in a start crash in race two
Indianapolis road course: Qualified in Fast Six for the first time. Caught in a lap one crash
Indy 500: Led the highest number of laps, sustained damage from hitting an errant wheel, finished 13th
With Daly now buoyed after his Indy 500 result, The Race asked him if he could build some proper career momentum off it as he still remains spread across two teams.
“I certainly hope so,” Daly replies. “All you can do is keep putting stats like that in the stat column.
“Leading a lot of laps at Indy is great. But, realistically, no one cares about that when you really look at the results. We finished 13th.
“Thankfully you all know. People who watched, they know, which is really cool. I think it helps.
“At Indy, I’ve struggled for sure in different situations with different scenarios.
“I really do enjoy racing there. Like I love the racing atmosphere, the style on the track, how you get forward, how you make moves. Now I have that experience up front.
“It’s a very different experience if you’re in the top four cars, very, very different. It’s much easier than I expected. But it’s nice because people are thinking, hey, we want to just be here for the last 20 laps.
“Getting through that centre part of the race becomes more efficient. You’re not being an idiot. Neither was Rinus nor was Colton [Herta] or Pato [O’Ward] or Helio [Castroneves]. Everyone, they’re thinking. I like that. I like being a part of that group.”
Daly looked every bit at home in that gaggle even if ECR’s strategy with him and VeeKay leading a lot of laps was questionable given it’s so hard to save fuel when you’re carving through the air at the head of the train instead of in the draft.
However, we can all be critical of the strategy, but with the right caution or tactical play who knows what could have been possible at the end of the race. VeeKay was taken out of play by being caught in traffic on his last stop according to the team, while Daly hit a much more obvious problem.
If you’ve not yet watched it, here’s the footage. It looks more akin to the video game Rocket League than IndyCar racing.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 30, 2021
Blaming bad luck has become a no-no in motorsport, and Daly has made errors and just generally struggled for pace in the past. But whether it’s an errant wheel being launched out of nowhere or being fired airborne and upside down in someone else’s accident like race two at Texas, Daly certainly falls on the wrong side of fortune. He’s had enough for a career in the last two years.
However, on this occasion, you could argue he’s lucky to be alive after his experience in the 500.
“The funny thing is we were looking at the video,” says Daly, asked to recite the incident, “there was also tyre smoke. We were trying to figure it out…
“My engineer thought it hit the front [wing] so hard that the rear tyres actually spun, but it wasn’t. It was me locking the front tyres [from braking].
“I can see every moment in my brain. All slow motion. Graham [Rahal] is in the wall, I’m going low following the car right in front of me.
“Boom. I’m like, whoa, what the heck was that? Literally had no sight of it at all.
“I didn’t even know what I hit, to be honest. Obviously, since it didn’t necessarily rip the left front off the car, I was like, ‘I think we’re OK’.
“Obviously a lot of people have come up to me, ‘oh, man, if that was two feet higher’, ‘If you didn’t have the aeroscreen…’
“I was like, you’re right.
“Racing is a game of those situations. There’s a lot of times where people look back, they’re like, ‘well, if it went like this, it could have happened this way’.
“You’re like, hey, it doesn’t matter. We’re all here, all safe. All good.”
Daly’s hoping he’s now here to stay in IndyCar. He’s living proof that being charismatic isn’t always enough to secure the funding and the number of races he desperately requires, but leading laps at Indy and establishing himself as one of the best of the next generation on ovals has to be worth something.
Especially as he’s not bad on road courses. A first non-oval appearance in the Fast Six on the Indianapolis road course earlier this year is proof of that.
Daly has repeatedly said that switching between teams is something he’d prefer not to do if there’s an opportunity, even if he has had a lot of continuity at ECR with so many road course races on the calendar. He calls it “awkward”, but says he and his teams are “making the most of it”.
That switching between people and engineers is exacerbated when you’re not quite on top of the car, and Daly’s happy to admit he’s a work in progress in the aeroscreen era.
Asked what he’s struggling with most, Daly replies: “It has been the difference in the balance between the car on the primary tyre to the red [softer] tyre.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to narrow that gap between how the car feels when we change tyres and race pace.
“Race pace-wise our car on heavy fuel has been a challenge for me. I think we’ve been narrowing that gap. We’ve been getting better in race pace conditions.
“The car has a very narrow window right now. I think we see that a lot. The entire field is within eight tenths of a second. That narrow window, it’s like two tenths or three tenths of a second. If you’re on the right side of those two tenths, that’s the goal.
“It’s just been tough for us to narrow that window down but I think we’re definitely getting there.”
Daly does need to be a bit more consistent on the road courses, at least getting a bit closer to VeeKay in the final classification as the latter has a 100% record of finishing higher than Daly when they’ve been team-mates across 13 races.
If he can do that, it would really help make Daly a more attractive prospect in this era of fewer ovals. Saying it is easy, trying to make tweaks and move forward in this uber-competitive field is another thing altogether.
In the past, the Indy 500 has proven a turnaround point or a race where you can find a lot of momentum.
It’s possible that could be the case for Daly, especially heading to a Detroit track where he finished a career-best second, in 2016, with Dale Coyne Racing.