For the first time, he can also circle the 15 other races on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. After years climbing the ladders of open-wheel racing in the United States and Europe, the 24-year-old Daly was finally announced as a full-time driver in a top-tier series, named the primary driver for Dale Coyne Racing at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show recently held in downtown Indianapolis.
“People don’t actually believe me,” a jovial Daly admitted. “Especially after the last three years. It’s really happening.”
While former sponsor Smithfield has stepped aside, Jonathan Byrd’s Restaurant and Hospitality Group, which will also be partnering with Coyne to sponsor Bryan Clauson in this year’s Indianapolis 500, stepped in. Daly is still finalizing details for his Indy 500 budget, but the Heritage Christian High School graduate is not worried, noting that the historic 100th running of the race makes sponsorship an easy sell.
“We scoured the planet looking for racecar drivers, and apparently all the best ones were in Noblesville,” David Byrd says, of Daly and Clauson, who attended Noblesville High School while running in USAC years ago. “When we found out that Dale [Coyne] was talking with Conor, we wanted to help him make that next step and jump to IndyCar full time. That was the perfect fit.”
Serving as IndyCar’s Band-Aid, Daly’s first chance in 2015 came with the same team that will field him full-time in 2016, Dale Coyne Racing. At Long Beach last season, Daly replaced the injured Rocky Moran Jr. and posted the second fastest lap for a Honda just days after stepping in the car for the first time.
The super-sub role continued for Daly continued when he replaced the injured James Hinchcliffe at Belle Isle and Toronto, scoring a sixth-place run and keeping pace despite an unfamiliar environment.
It’s a cruel irony that the lone bit of stability Daly had last season, an Indy 500 ride with a strong team in Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports and an impressive sponsor in Smithfield Foods, combusted so quickly despite the sense of security that came with a dedicated team whose lone goal was to complete 500 miles and 200 laps on one balmy Indianapolis afternoon in May.
A lesser driver might have had his confidence damaged, perhaps for the rest of the season. Fortunately for Daly, he didn’t have time to overthink his next move. Schmidt Peterson finalized Daly’s deal to replace Hinchcliffe shortly after the severity of Hinchcliffe’s injuries were revealed, announcing Daly as their driver just two days after his Indy 500 went up in smoke.
“It was character-building, I guess,” Daly says. “In the end, these things happen in racing. We could go out in St. Pete [in 2016], and something could happen on the first lap. It’s a tough environment everywhere we go, and we just have to stay focused on whatever’s next. You can’t control the past. You can only control what’s next.”
In his short stint, Daly’s results did not match his performance. And they didn’t dampen the massive expectations he has carried since he dominated the Star Mazda series with seven wins in 12 races, expectations that have existed since he first stepped into a racecar carrying the successful Daly name.
The announcement of Daly’s full-time ride marks the realization of many IndyCar fans’ hopes. He has earned his way, and now stands on the cusp of finally being able to live up not only to those fan expectations, but to the expectations he has placed on himself.