A decade ago, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly were chasing each other around Mark Dismore’s go-kart track in New Castle, Indiana, taking turns beating each other but, more importantly, whipping up on the competition before moving their battles to Skip Barber. They headed for England with Team USA in 2008, where Josef won the Formula Ford Festival and Daly won the Walter Hayes Trophy.
If Formula 1 wasn’t beckoning, at least it was part of the nightly conversation around the two dinner tables, and Derek Daly’s past relationships in F1 and attention to detail seemed to give his son a leg up.
Yet initially it was Newgarden who stuck it out in Europe the longest, suiting up with Carlin for the inaugural GP3 season in 2010. Daly, meanwhile, jumped into Star Mazda, winning races as a rookie in 2009 and then the championship with Juncos in 2010. But by 2011, the pair were teammates at Sam Schmidt in Indy Lights.
Newgarden won the championship, while Daly captured Long Beach but then headed off for a four-year jaunt in GP2 [below, in 2014] and GP3 and a taste of testing at Force India, which undoubtedly set him back over here in the States.
And today they find themselves at opposite ends of the IndyCar spectrum.
In his first season with Roger Penske, Newgarden vanquished his more experienced competition with an aggressive style that netted him the IndyCar championship. It was a great story, well-deserved run and the 26-year-old (27 in December) is now perched atop the Team Penske flagship for what promises to be many years of victories and titles as he leads North America’s most successful racing team.
Daly, recently released from A.J. Foyt’s team after one year, is scrambling to try and find enough sponsorship to land at Dale Coyne with his former engineer Mike Cannon so he can continue as a full-timer.
So how did these two evenly-matched kids get so separated? Is it because Josef has clearly lapped Daly and owns a sizeable edge in talent, or is it through having people that believe in your ability and giving you a chance to develop and show what you’ve got?
Clearly, it’s the latter, and before all you experts weigh in with your theories, do me a favor and just read along for a few minutes.
The idea that Daly had his chance and didn’t capitalize on it is as ludicrous as saying Sage Karam is out of his depth and belongs in sports cars because he also flamed out. Really? Daly has made 39 starts over four very scrambled years, while Karam has a whopping 13 IndyCar races under his 22-year-old belt in what amounts to less than one full season spread over three years.
What’s infuriating is the lack of time an IndyCar driver is given to try and make it in 2017 compared to drivers just a few years ago in F1, or the old guard in IndyCar.
So for argument’s sake let’s simply look at some stone-cold stats across the board that illustrate how much patience used to be in place.
Jenson Button made 113 starts before he scored his initial F1 win [ED: at Hungary in 2006, above] and went on to become the 2009 champion.
Nico Rosberg made 111 starts before his first win and finally won the 2016 F1 title.
Miki Hakkinen took 96 starting lights before winning and then became a two-time world champion.
Nigel Mansell went 72 races before tasting champagne and Rubens Barrichello amassed 123 starts prior to win No. 1.
Now let’s look at American open-wheel racing’s greatest story of perseverance, pluck and second chances. Johnny Rutherford was a brave sprint car warrior who came to Indy in 1963 and won his first IndyCar race in 1965 at Atlanta in his 33rd start.
Lone Star J.R.’s next trip to Victory Lane came eight years and 98 races later in 1973 at Ontario with McLaren, which resurrected his career and vaulted him into legend status with three Indy 500 wins. Eight years between wins, and he still got rides because he was fast, brave and, more importantly, there were lots of cars and opportunities in those lethal days of the ’60s and ’70s.
Hell, it took the incomparable A.J. Foyt 34 races to earn his initial Champ Car win, 36 starts for Michael Andretti to see his first checkered flag and 41 green flags for Bobby Unser, another three-time Indy king, to triumph.
Helio Castroneves answered the bell 46 times before climbing the fence in Detroit [in 2000, below]. Oh, did I forget to mention all the tire testing and test days in the USAC/CART era?
How about Takuma Sato? This year’s Indy 500 winner made 91 F1 starts and 52 IndyCar starts before scoring win No. 1 at Long Beach in 2013, but going zero-for-143 and still having a job was only thanks to Honda’s endearing loyalty. And good for Sato, as gracious and appreciative as any man on the Borg-Warner Trophy before him, but who gets that kind of time anymore?
Thankfully, Newgarden did. Not 10 years like Sato, but the right amount of nurturing, support and track time to learn his craft, his car and his limits.
Winning the Lights crown got him $1 million and his foot in the IndyCar door in 2012 but if Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter hadn’t stepped up and kept JoNew in a competitive, full-time environment he’d likely be a sports car driver today like Dane Cameron, Jonathan Bomarito, John Edwards and so many other talented open-wheel kids that realized early that IndyCar was a dead-end without millions.
Think not? Even though it was very apparent to some of us that Newgarden was Penske Perfect material a few years ago, The Captain and Tim Cindric didn’t really see it like that when they first interviewed him back at 21. But I think it all clicked after watching this kid fight off the pain of his Texas crash in 2016 and kick everyone’s ass at Iowa.
It took Newgarden 55 starts to score his initial win at Barber in 2015 in the beginning of his fourth full-time season, and his relationship with savvy engineer Jeremy Milles blossomed into a confident collaboration that expected results.
It’s impossible to put a price on stability, structure and confidence – three things Daly desperately needs but has never received in his travails with five engineers and four teams – the polar opposite of a Team Penske environment.
Ditto for Karam, who went from the back to the front at Indy as a teenage rookie twice during the 2014 Indy 500 before finishing ninth. Chip Ganassi gave him a partial drive in 2015, where he earned a podium, was about to win the pole in a monsoon in Detroit before getting a bogus red flag and showed me the kind of aggression that you can back down but not teach. He’s Paul Tracy II and just the kind of young, edgy racer that IndyCar covets but nobody seems to notice. He won at every level in the Mazda ladder, yet now he’s an Indy-only driver at age 22 because nobody wants to take a chance?
I’m one of Ed Jones’ biggest fans and his shocking ascension to Ganassi as Scott Dixon’s teammate was a nice reward for a great rookie season – but is he that much better than Daly or Karam? I think not but Chip thinks so, because since Jimmy Vasser departed he hasn’t believed American drivers can get the job done. And that’s his prerogative.
Yet Newgarden’s entrée to the throne room should have told a lot of these owners to look around and open their eyes. I’m thrilled Ed Carpenter is keeping Spencer Pigot, below, because he’s another young Yankee with a bright future, given the time.
And it’s not fair to just blame the owners for the lack of development. The cars are too expensive, the tires are too expensive, the purses are paltry, the engine manufacturers dictate way too much policy and control, while drivers are simply expected to bring or find money.
It pisses me off that A.J. sent Daly packing, especially after his strong close to the year, and having Super Tex invest and develop a young American seemed perfect – and one more storyline IndyCar needs.
But don’t tell me that Daly and Karam aren’t good enough or they’ve had their chances, because that’s a load of s***. What neither has had yet is a gestation period to shine with a top team geared toward them, where they’re not looking over their shoulder or worried about budgets or losing their rides to somebody with money.
I don’t know if either can salvage a career out of IndyCar. But if they can’t, it won’t be because they’re not good enough.
It will be because they weren’t given the time.