Conor Daly was not a happy man. With his teammate Rinus VeeKay on pole at Barber Motorsports Park in the No. 21 Chevy and his No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing entry languishing in 22nd at the end of qualifying, he knew another long day was on the horizon.
By the end of the race, where VeeKay finished third and Daly crossed the finish line a distant 19th, the mood continued to sour as the ECR duo’s season diverged by a wider margin. When everything has gone well for both drivers, the performance gaps have been negligible. But so far in 2022, the story has been of VeeKay’s return to prominence, with three top 10 finishes from four races and a current hold on seventh place in the Drivers’ championship, while Daly has yet to crack the top 10 and sits 19th in the standings.
A rough open to the year at St. Petersburg, where pace was lacking in qualifying, relegated Daly to an afternoon on an alternate strategy that didn’t play out in his favor. A technical issue at the next race at Texas Motor Speedway, where his No. 20 Chevy received multiple pit lane speeding violations, ruined his chances to rebound, and the ensuing visit to Long Beach offered only a slight reprieve as he came home a season’s best of 12th.
Beyond a need for better luck, Daly says he’s identified one area where improvement is needed and so far, the gains have been hard to produce.
“There’s no excuses for anything,” Daly told RACER. “We’ve had some problems this year, had a good race going in Texas until something happened that was out of our control, but we also had the fastest lap at St. Pete, so it’s been a little bit all over the place with nailing consistent results.
“At Barber, Rinus and I were on completely different setups. And a lot of that came from the Ryan Hunter-Reay test that we did there with him. And it was something that I could not drive, and we just struggled with all weekend with my car. Honestly, this whole aeroscreen era has been really, really difficult for my driving style.”
With its introduction at the start of 2020, the 60-pound aeroscreen has been a massive upgrade in driver safety. Its placement atop the cockpit has also changed the handling of the spec Dallara DW12 chassis, as the high and forward weight acts like a pendulum while turning, braking and accelerating through the corners. And while it’s fair to say the aeroscreen’s impacts on an IndyCar’s handling are the same for every driver, it doesn’t mean each driver reacts to its effects in the same manner.
Entering its third season, the aeroscreen continues to present a question for Daly’s driving style that remains unanswered.
“It just changes the way that the car mechanically grips the track, it changes the forces that are driven into the tire; it just changes everything,” he explained. “That’s a ton of weight put right in the center. And again, I understand the necessity for it. I’m not throwing any shade at it. The safety it brings is great. I’m just explaining the scientific facts behind it, what it’s done to the handling. It’s probably not affected some people, and it’s affected other people in different ways.
“But it changes a lot mechanically. In the era that I began my rookie year in IndyCar, we had a ton of downforce, and a ton of grip, and that was perfect for me. When I look back at 2016, some of the races that we had, you know, fighting for the podium, leading races, leading the Indy GP, those were cars I can confidently drive. I loved the way that they felt. Today’s cars, it’s a very, very different downforce level, a very, very different, weight profile. And it’s not like we haven’t been quick with the car since the aeroscreen came out. We have. But it doesn’t always feel the way that makes the most sense to me.
“Being on the Chevy simulator has helped to find improvements for me, but it’s definitely a tough position for me to be in and my engineer, Peter Craik, has worked hard at trying to give me what I want. I think we’ve done a good job at several different places, but it just hasn’t worked out for us yet in the way that my crew deserves.”
This weekend’s GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis road course presents Daly with a prime opportunity to change the trajectory of his year. With a best finish of sixth at the venue, not to mention VeeKay’s race-winning performance for ECR at the 2021 race, the Indiana native should be in the hunt for his first top 10 of the season by the end of Saturday’s event.
“I totally understand where we are,” he said. “I had this conversation with someone just last night where you can have two good races in Indy and suddenly are in the top eight points with the double points from the [Indy] 500. We know we’ve been strong at the Indy GP. There’s the question of if the other teams have improved more than us since the last race there, so we’ll find out, but the confidence is high that we can do well.
“When we went to Long Beach last year we were pretty awful, but we improved when we went back this year and we were quicker. So improvements are being made and I’m very confident in the month of May packages that we have. I just really want to race my way out of what’s been a terrible start to the season.”