Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

Conor Daly hopeful part-time ‘auditions’ turn into full-time 2020 ride

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MONTEREY, Calif – Fans who follow the NTT IndyCar Series know very well that the series is one of the most competitive racing circuits in the world on the track, but some may not know the challenges drivers face outside of the track.

For some drivers, simply finding the opportunity to race in the series can be difficult, especially on a full-time basis.

Conor Daly knows this all too well. Daly remains a fan favorite, but since losing his full-time ride with A.J. Foyt Racing following the 2017 season, he has competed in IndyCar on a part-time basis – something he hopes to change soon. 

“For me, it’s always a fight to be back full time,” Daly told NBC Sports. “It’s always a pressure-packed situation.

“People are always looking for some sort of special result, but it’s very hard to do that as a one-off entry or a substitute entry. We’re just trying to make the best of it. I think it’s gone really well so far this year.

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Sunday’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca will mark Daly’s seventh and final start of 2019. After finishing tenth at the Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport in what was supposed to be Daly’s lone start this season, the 27-year-old was able to catch a few more opportunities to race this season. 

The first team to offer Daly addtional starts this season was Carlin.

“It was really just an interesting situation with Carlin because Max Chilton pulled out of doing the ovals – which is a respectable decision,” Daly told NBC Sports. “I guess I was just that next man up.”

Then came an offer to return to Andretti for the season finale, as well as the offer from Arrow Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports to fill in for Marcus Ericsson at Portland International Raceway three weeks ago. All in all, Daly has been provided with the opportunity to run seven races between three teams this season.

Not bad for a driver who began 2019 expecting to run only the Indy 500.

“Honestly, any time you can drive an Indy car, you’re a lucky human being,” Daly said. “This is the top level of motorsport across the world.

“There’s 22-24 full-time cars [in IndyCar], and there’s 7 billion people in the world. To be one of those guys is really special.”

During his partial schedule, Daly has put together several more respectful runs. He finished 10th at Indy and finished no worse than 13th in all four of his starts with Carlin. Daly also looked as if he’d run well at Portland, though he was collected in a crash on Lap 1.

Daly has used these opportunities to audition for a full-time ride next season and has kept his fingers crossed that his auditions will pay off soon. He is hopeful of an announcement in the near future. 

“I think this year has elevated our stock for sure,” Daly said. “I know that there’s potentially one seat available with the Arrow SPM team, which would be awesome, but there’s also probably a hundred people that would also love that seat.

“All I can do is try and help the Air Force figure out where we want to be next year if we can continue that program. But we know that is very Indy 500 focused. I think there’s a lot of positive stuff happening and depending on how this weekend goes we’ll be able to know for sure next week.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida