April 1, 2014 — Audio and story by Race Chaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — photo courtesy World of Motorsport blog — NOBLESVILLE, IN and ST. PETERSBURG, FL — As the 2014 IndyCar Series season got underway in St. Petersburg, the engines fired with one notable face sitting on the sidelines, pondering his future in major open wheel racing before it has even fully begun.
Conor Daly has become an enigmatic figure in paddocks around the world. A 2013 winner in the GP3 Series and competitor in GP2, the final step of the Formula One feeding ladder, the budding star is America’s best chance to reclaim a seat on the illustrious F1 grid.
The 22-year-old made his IndyCar debut last season with a 22nd place finish in the Indianapolis 500, but elected to pursue a dream of racing overseas to fulfill the family legacy forged by father Derek Daly, who competed for over a decade in F1 and CART.
But now, without the aid of lucrative sponsorship, Daly is without a ride. While his peers circuit familiar tracks in excess of 180mph, he sits at a standstill, scouring the paddock on a self-proclaimed job hunt.
“There’s a limit to how much they [sponsors] can give. If I had enough, I’d be in, but unfortunately I don’t right now. We’re just trying to build that base and get more people involved,” Daly told Race Chaser Online prior to qualifying.
“I’m going to try to do as many IndyCar races as I can do. I’ll be focused on the month of May of course because that’s the big one, but I really, really, really want to do a road course. That’s my bread and butter and what I know I can really perform at, so I’d love to focus on trying to do Long Beach.”
Daly’s career path has taken interesting turns that have been highly debated by those on the outside of the decision-making circle. To opinionated observers, the influence of his Irish born father is strong, seemingly pushing his son away from opportunities in IndyCar for a gamble in Europe to experience F1 one more time vicariously through his son. While his father still has an active presence, Conor claims that he independently controls his own destiny.
“He’s a supportive father, for sure. He’s huge in my racing career and he has been managing me for a while, but he has chosen to step away from the manager role for right now only because he has a lot to do with his own business,” Daly said. “I need a lot of help, but I’ve taken over my own management process now. It’s tough, but I’ve learned a lot. I’m lucky to have him on my side.”
Young drivers with talent and money often flee for smaller open wheel championships across the Atlantic Ocean, but Daly’s start came much close to home. A native of Noblesville, Indiana, a successful venture in karting led to further opportunities stateside. Working his way through IndyCar feeder series, Daly earned the 2010 Star Mazda championship with seven wins and nine poles before contesting a partial season with one victory in Indy Lights the following year.
Daly’s career track depicts a road to Indy, but his ambitions are still focused on Formula One.
“Formula One is the top. Everyone wants to do Formula One. I have a Formula One dream still. It has unfortunately become more difficult to get there, but you never stop dreaming. I just want to have a professional career in motorsports, and that’s driving anything racecar wise. I want to make a living out of doing what I love, which is driving race cars at the limit. I don’t know where that will be yet, but hopefully it will be open-wheel.”
Daly’s year began in Abu Dhabi with Venezuela GP Lazarus in GP2 testing, setting the seventh fastest time of the session, showcasing the shear speed possessed in every discipline of racing he has tried. The potential is there, but his session ended upside-down after riding over the wheels of a slower competitor, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the current state of limbo he finds his career in.
“I have to do whatever I can do. Things change literally hour by hour depending on the emails you get and the opportunities that come about. You never know. I mind end up at the first GP2 race in Bahrain next week, or I might not.”
In the classic 1970 racing film Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s character Michael Delaney famously states “when you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting,” a quote instantly relatable to any driver whose lifelong passion is fueled behind the wheel.
At the age of ten, second generation driver Conor Daly hopped behind the wheel of a kart, racing his way close to the pinnacle of the sport non-stop for over twelve years.
Now, he waits.
Listen in as our Joel Sebastianelli sat down for a full-length interview with Conor Daly during the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: