Conor Daly was sitting in the Andretti Autosport hospitality tent Saturday at Detroit — dressed in his Air Force colors and looking very much like he belonged. Just like last weekend at Indianapolis.
A week removed from the best Indianapolis 500 of his career, where he ran as high as fourth and wound up 10th, Daly was greeted by several well wishers as he contemplated his next move.
“People have been coming up and saying, ‘Hey you proved it to us at Indy,'” related Daly, breaking into a smile. “I said, ‘Thanks but it’s all about having a good car.'”
The 27-year-old second generation driver has shown flashes of proving it for years as he jumped from car to car at places like Road America, Gateway and the Indy GP, and he’s always been a better racer than a qualifier. But he went from a filler to a factor at IMS because the Air Force sponsored him for a ride with Michael Andretti’s well-oiled machine. He was the fifth wheel on this team but performed better than all but teammate Alexander Rossi. He qualified 11th, was in the lead pack all afternoon and looked headed for a top 5 until a late wing adjustment dropped him back to 10th.
“We didn’t finish where we should have and that was really frustrating,” said Daly, who passed Rossi and Bourdais back to back to move into fourth place two-thirds of the way through the race. “When I got by Seb, I thought, ‘Now we’re in the game,’ and I was happy to be in that group with Simon (Pagenaud), Alex, Ed (Carpenter) and Josef Newgarden). I was just going to settle in and get ready for the last 20 laps.”
Andretti took the blame for the front wing change but Daly said it was just a racing situation that was nobody’s fault.
And nothing could really dampen his spirits following last Sunday. May has never been very kind to Conor. One year his car caught fire on the parade lap, another he qualified a car with old parts and, other than his ride with A.J. Foyt, mostly it’s been kind of a fire drill just to make the show.
But he knew from Day 1 that Andretti would be his best opportunity ever. From the team’s comprehensive damper program to engineering depth to the sharing of information, his sixth Indy 500 was a dream.
“I had to change how I drove because last year — it was massive understeer and I couldn’t feel the car initially,” he explained. “This time there was so much mechanical stability built into the car and it was so nice. We struggled with a lot of stuff in practice but we were 12th or 15th and you know why you’re struggling.
“It was just everything you dream of. My engineer, Andy Listes, is incredible and one of the best I’ve been with and he made me comfortable from Day 1.”
Now it’s time to focus on the rest of this year and 2020. Daly had help from the MannKind Group (which provides the Type 1 diabetic with insulin) Gess biofuel, Capstone Turbine and, of course, the Air Force.
“I hope Air Force found the same value this year as they did last year and they come back with me,” he said. “Can they do more, I don’t know but I know I’d like to come back with this team. I’d love to put a deal together for the full season with Michael but it’s full of drivers and I think I’d have to have a big sponsor to get him to run five cars. Right now I’m just trying to put something together to run another race this season.”
And his preference?
“Pocono with an Andretti car,” he replied.