PRUETT: Daly like father like son

Once IndyCar racing gets into your blood, it’s damn near impossible to break free from its grip. Conor Daly knows this to be true. The son of ex-Formula 1, sports car and IndyCar driver Derek Daly has followed a meandering — and often frustrating — path to find stability since he made his series debut at the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 with A.J. Foyt Racing.

Eternally youthful, the second-generation driver still looks like a kid who just arrived on the IndyCar scene, but the perma-grin and mullet can’t hide the fact that he’s been here for quite some time. To understand Daly’s tenure and tenacity, just know that “Duck Dynasty” was the hottest thing on cable TV and PSY’s song “Gangnam Style” went to No. 1 when the Road to Indy standout arrived at the Speedway with Foyt.

Fresh-faced Conor at his Indy debut with A.J. and Larry Foyt in 2013. Image by Marshall Pruett

After driving Foyt’s No. 41 Honda to 22nd on his debut, Daly sat out for a year, then stepped in on short notice for Dale Coyne Racing at Long Beach in 2015, did the Indy 500 and three other races with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, returned to Coyne in 2016 for his first full season, then returned to Foyt in 2017 for his second full-time run before being dropped at the end of the year.

In 2018, Daly went back to Coyne for a third time where he did the Indy 500 before being picked up by Harding for three races towards the end of the season. Continuity remained a stranger in Daly’s life once more as 2019 brought a move to Andretti Autosport for the Indy 500 where his best finish to date of 10th was earned, and afterwards, he’d join Carlin Racing for four rounds, get the nod from Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for a one-off at Portland, and close the season with another appearance for Andretti.

And finally, in 2020, Daly found a new groove as Carlin’s oval driver where he earned his first pole at Iowa, and Ed Carpenter Racing’s road and street course partner in the No. 20 Chevy and third driver at the Indy 500. The routine would continue last year as he played the same roles for Carlin and ECR.

Altogether, Daly’s driven for seven IndyCar teams and switched back and forth 13 times since 2013. That thing about IndyCar racing getting into your blood and refusing to let go? There’s no better example these days than the 30-year-old from Noblesville, Indiana.

“I guess most people would give up when you come to so many roadblocks,” Derek Daly (pictured at right, top, with Conor) said of his boy, who found a major new sponsor and just signed on to stay with ECR for his first full-time season with the same team since 2017. “Ironically, if you look at his fill-in roles, like when James Hinchcliffe got hurt [in 2015], he jumps in the car at Detroit, almost won the race. Or when he put it on the pole at Iowa for Carlin. His fill-in roles have actually been some of the strongest performances which fueled him to push forward, no matter what happened, because they were little opportunities to prove himself yet again.

Rare opportunities like Detroit in 2015 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have brought out the best in Conor. Scott LePage/Motorsport Images

“So I think I think when you repeatedly demonstrate that type of resolve, there has to be some significant results at the end of the rainbow. That’s what we’re all taught: Don’t give up. And if you look at all he’s done to stay in IndyCar, I think he exemplifies that. And the interesting thing is, he’s brought a brand-new sponsor into the sport, which is another rare thing. You just hope it turns the tides for him and he can stay with Carpenter forever.”

If you’re wondering where the ECR driver gets that unwavering resolve, just look to the elder Daly. Across five F1 seasons from 1978-82, Derek drove for six teams, and when he landed in the CART IndyCar Series at the end of 1982, he’d go on to race for seven teams through 1989.

It’s not exactly the kind of legacy a father wants to see continue with a son or daughter, but just as Derek dug in and carried his helmet from team to team in F1 and CART paddocks, Conor has done the same in IndyCar while trying to find a consistent home that proved to be so elusive.

Derek Daly wheeling a Curb Racing March 86C Cosworth at Sanair Super Speedway in 1986. David Hutson/Motorsport Images

“While I was doing it, I didn’t realize it; you just went on to the next race, wherever it was with whatever team,” Daly said. “I had a bit of an unusual situation in CART because I got hurt badly in 1984, and that put my career off track, and that put me into fight mode. And quite honestly, the reason I had to go into fight mode is because I was absolutely determined to leave the sport on my own terms. Not to have my accident cause me to leave the sport.

“So I had to get back and duck and dive and do anything I could to get rides. So as I eventually got myself back to full-time IndyCar, and then did sports car racing, and after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring (in 1992), I was ready to walk away on my own terms. And so my hope for Conor is that whenever he stops being a racing driver, he has a sense of satisfaction for what he did, satisfaction for what he learned, because he’s had to fight like I did to keep his career alive.

“I think that’s probably why he’s so popular. With all these part-time drives, all these imperfect situations, he kept going, which I believe resonates with the average person. So now he’s ready for it to pay off at Carpenter’s team. I always say that you’re never beaten when you’re knocked down. You’re only beaten when you stay down.”