Last year he took out a loan to cover the remaining cost of his Indy 500 ride and, oh by the way, got paid nothing from the $200,305 that 21st place paid.
“It was stupid, not a good idea, but I had to stay in the game,” reasons Conor Daly.
Staying in the game is a good description of what Daly’s been doing since 2014 after leaving Europe and abandoning his F1 aspirations. After filling in at SPM for the injured James Hinchcliffe for four races in 2015, the second-generation racer’s first full-time opportunity in 2016 with Dale Coyne had some strong results, and he was rewarded by being hired by A.J. Foyt for 2017. That relationship went south, so he was back as a “May only” guy last year before Harding Racing brought him in for three races to help analyze the team’s struggles.
In his 43 IndyCar starts Derek Daly’s kid only has one podium, but has displayed the ability to sort out a chassis quickly, race better than he qualifies, stay up front when he gets there and wring the most out of his equipment.
He’s only 26, yet his open-wheel career is at the crossroads. He needs something he’s never had – one shot on the big stage with a top team. And thanks to the Air Force, that’s going to happen this May when he drives for Andretti Autosport.
“Since last year I’ve been trying to claw my way back into somewhere good and this is my opportunity, this is my shot to do what I think I can do,” says Daly. “It’s the best ride I’ve ever had by a mile, and obviously, Air Force made it happen and I can’t thank them enough, because nobody is stronger at Indianapolis than Michael’s team.
“The Air Force folks came to Mid-Ohio last summer, and started meeting with teams and obviously we were looking for full-time rides. I knew what was out there, and I knew I wasn’t going to end up with a full-time ride, so this is the next best thing.”
He’s teamed with good buddy Marco Andretti, ex-landlord, Amazing Race partner and 2016 Indy 500 victor Alexander Rossi, Zach Veach and 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay on a squad that’s won three of the last five May classics.
“Having such a level of high-caliber teammates is all new to me, and I feel like I’ll learn a lot from them,” continues Daly. “Everyone at Andretti has always been good to me, and I’ve always dreamed of driving for them. I’ve tested their Lights car, had Andretti proposals on my laptop since 2015, and had Andretti suits made up, but it never happened.
“Marco gave me $3,000 dollars to test for Sam Schmidt in 2015, and has done so much for me, and knows how much of a struggle it’s been.”
It’s difficult to grasp why somebody that won in everything he drove (including F3), was rated higher than Josef Newgarden by Schmidt when they ran his Lights cars, and who impressed at SPM, Coyne and Harding, has failed to gain a foothold in IndyCar.
“It’s been tough for the past four years, filling in here and there, and I think he’s been snake bit,” says Michael Cannon, the veteran engineer for Coyne who worked with Daly in 2016. “I also think he’s better than what he realizes. He doesn’t lack confidence, he lacks conviction. But he’s no dummy, and with a good group like Andretti I think he can have a really good month. A lot of people want to see him do well, and this is an excellent opportunity to show what he’s made of.”
You can probably bet his Andretti Dallara/Honda won’t catch fire three times during the race or die on the pace lap (like two of his previous five Indy rides), he’ll likely have a car equipped more for ovals than road courses unlike last May, and the shocks won’t be five years old like they were with Harding last summer.
“Look we all know Indy is fickle and anything can happen,” says Daly. “Your engine can blow on the first lap. But after so many years it can’t be just any opportunity at Indy. And now I’ve got one of the best.”