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Daly: ‘I so dearly want to do well and have a long career in IndyCar’

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The old saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics is probably an apt one to describe the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season at A.J. Foyt Racing, for its pair of new drivers, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, and its engine manufacturer/aero kit in Chevrolet. The fusion of newness has not made it easy for anyone.

Based purely on the statistics, it’s been a tough year, and that’s not something either driver will dispute.

Munoz (16th) and Daly (19th) are in two of the four lowest ranked positions among those who’ve competed in all or all but one race. Neither driver has finished better than seventh, Daly has the team’s only top-10 start (10th in Detroit race two), the team is the only full-time team that hasn’t led a lap and the future here might be uncertain for the lineup of determined young guns, neither of whom is older than 25.

Dig a bit deeper though and the nature of how competitive the series is and the fact someone has to be at the back, for better or worse, has stacked the deck against the team anyway so it shouldn’t be a surprise the year’s been as challenging as it has. That makes it harder for performances to shine through when the stats say what they do, although both Daly and Munoz have had flashes this year.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 10: The car of Conor Daly, driver of the #4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, is serviced during Pit Stop Practice prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

For his part, Daly needs a solid final five races of the year to quiet the criticism some will throw at him. He has the team’s best result of the year – seventh at Texas – and had other races such as Detroit race two and Phoenix where early or late race promise faded by no fault of his own.

The 25-year-old out of Noblesville, Ind. makes an important point that getting better does take time, and given what he was still able to accomplish in races last year with respectable race craft, he is a better driver than what the year’s indicated.

“It’s been tough mentally to deal with it because I so dearly want to do well and have a long career in IndyCar,” Daly told NBC Sports. “I know I can do it. I’ve been at the front before, where I’ve led races, and come close to winning races. I know there are engineers and there’s people I work with that believe in me.

“After such a difficult year you have to stay focused. I know the guys around me know – Larry and AJ and our engineers work really hard as well to make this work and continue to improve. It’s not an easy job. We are out there working to make it happen.”

Daly was also thrown a preseason curveball on top of the team and manufacturer changes when his engineer changed two weeks before the season started. Mike Colliver took over as lead on the No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet and has earned Daly’s plaudits.

“I think Mike’s a smart guy. He’s very keen on our damper development,” Daly said. “It’s one of the areas of development within IndyCar. He’s been good at keeping us on track and focuses on the good things we’ve done. He takes my frustration at times and deals with it. I really want to do well. Sometimes I get emotional about it.”

Daly looks at his contemporary Josef Newgarden, a longtime friend and rival from karting, Skip Barber and into Indy Lights as proof positive of how long it takes to ascend the competitive pecking order as a young driver within IndyCar.

Newgarden, only a year older at 26, didn’t even have a single top-10 finish his rookie season, didn’t score a top-five until his 18th race start in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 2013 and his first podium until Baltimore in September that year, his 30th race. In 2015, in his fourth season and after 50-plus starts, Newgarden won his first race and made his first top-10 in points.

Strategy certainly aided Daly last year at Dale Coyne Racing but he was a regular top-10 finisher with five of them in his first full season, including posting a second place in Detroit and fourth place in Watkins Glen.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Carlos Munoz of Colombia, driver of the #14 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet and Conor Daly, driver of the #4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet walk to driver introductions before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While Newgarden has ascended to Team Penske, Daly and Munoz have represented the hardships that affect other young drivers in the sport – trying to make that climb with a new team after switching.

“I give Carlos a lot of credit at getting through some of the difficult things,” Daly said. “I’m always focused on the next race. I think Carlos is the next one. It’s difficult for him coming from a seriously large organization. Foyt is just a smaller team and we know that. But there’s a lot of great people here.

“From the outside, it’s easy to judge and blame the driver. For me – this is only my second year, and I’ve done research on this – it takes time. I’m not gonna keep using that as an excuse, but it’s sort of a fact. Josef Newgarden is a extremely successful IndyCar driver. I use Josef as a good point of reference as he does well right now and I grew up with him.

“We as a team work on what we can do. We don’t focus on the chatter; it’s not helpful for us as we develop our program. If people want to know what’s up, they should come and ask us, and talk about it rather than say, ‘I think this is what’s going on.'”

Signs such as being the second fastest Chevrolet driver in the Toronto race this weekend (sixth fastest on the charts overall and with the sixth fastest race lap) are there of the improved potential but again, the depth of field makes it hard to stand out. And as Daly explained, trying to get up to grips with everything has been a challenge.

“We struggle to find the overall new tire pace whether it be certain tracks, or ovals, road circuits, street circuits,” he said. “There’s been a constant evolution of our setups. We’re always discovering something new the Chevy kit and Chevy engine might like. Say we found a different gear strategy, that helps us instead of getting beaten in certain areas.

“It’s really easy to lay blame on a lot of different things. This is not an easy job we’re trying to do. It’s top level motor racing. Carlos and I are fighting every weekend to get the right information we need. It’s not easy.

“A lot of people have different opinions. We don’t have the results yet, but there are things we’re absolutely doing better as a team. And it might be next year where can we show those things to the world.”

The quest to ensure Daly gets a proper next year – it’s easy to forget he only has 33 career IndyCar starts under his belt, one of the smallest numbers in the field – begins with next weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Daly rebounded from an accident in practice there to lead on an off-sequence strategy and ultimately finish sixth. It was a nice recovery on a tough weekend there, when new teammate RC Enerson impressed from the off on debut and brought Daly forward to help raise his game.

Surprisingly, given the number of tracks he’s raced on in his career, this was his first career start at Mid-Ohio.

“That finish was big, man. It was a tough weekend for me,” he said. “I’d went off track a couple times. But only about halfway through the race – I found not just a better way to drive the car but use the brakes better enough.

“It was from then on we really fast. Strategy helped us. But once we were there, in the lead, it was a strong run for us. It was nice to have that finish, and come back up front.

“You’re always learning more about the tracks. The key is hopefully we start from a better position and get into things quicker.”

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500