Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Conor Daly aims at Europe and F1

by Gordon Kirby
Conor Daly has dominated this year's Star Mazda championship. In his second season in Star Mazda the eighteen-year old Daly has won six of eleven races and taken eight poles. He scored his most recent win from the pole at Elkhart Lake last Saturday and with two races to go at Mosport next weekend and Road Atlanta on October 2, Conor has missed making the podium in only one race and leads the championship by 69 points from Anders Krohn. He should wrap-up the Star Mazda title at Mosport next Saturday.

Young Daly has shown plenty of ability since he first stepped into a race car. Conor started in karts when he was ten and raced karts for five years. He made the move to cars two years ago, running both the Skip Barber National series and the Canadian FF1600 championship. Daly won races in both series and took the Skip Barber championship which won him a season in Star Mazda for 2009 worth $350,000.

And in October of 2008 Conor and Josef Newgarden flew to the UK as the winners of Jeremy Shaw's Team USA scholarship to compete in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy FF spectacular at Silverstone. Against all expectations the two American teen-agers--friendly rivals since their karting days--were totally competitive and proved themselves fierce racers. Newgarden won the second division 'Kent' race in the FF Festival and Daly scored a great win in the rain in the Walter Hayes race at Silverstone.

In 2009, Conor's first year in the Star Mazda series, he drove for Andersen Racing. He won in New Jersey and took one pole and finished third in the championship.

© Eric McCombs
"Last year was a really good year," Conor says. "I was racing against a lot of god guys and learned a lot. We weren't sure what to do after the season. We were dabbling with doing something in Europe but then everything pointed to doing Star Mazda again and it was a really good choice. Things have gone well this season and hopefully we can keep that going through the end of the year."

Daly moved to Juncos Racing this year. Owned by Argentinian Ricardo Juncos the team is based in Vero Beach. Juncos started his race team in 1997 in his native Buenos Aires before moving to Miami in 2003 where he ran a karting operation. Juncos graduated to the Star Mazda series last year.

"We were always trying to catch the Juncos team in 2009," Daly observed. "They had Peter Dempsey and he was very fast in every race. We were always trying to catch up with him and towards the end of the season I was able to be consistently quicker than my teammate and get closer and closer to Adam Christodoulou and Peter. We were able to be faster than Adam at the end of the year but I couldn't catch Peter and there was something in the Juncos team that I wanted to be a part of. They all really wanted to win. You could see that in the way they acted and conducted themselves at the racetrack."

Father Derek agreed with Conor that Juncos was the way to go for his second season in Star Mazda.

"It appeared to both of us that even though they were a new team to the series Juncos had a better technical understanding of the car," Derek comments. "If Conor was going to do it for a second year we felt he could put his experience to best use with Juncos, and as it's transpired it was a very good decision."

Conor could not be more pleased with the way the team operates.

"I come to the track ready to go and they're on their game 110 percent," he remarked. "If we're slow we keep working on the problem and if we're fast, we keep working on it. I think we're just the hardest workers at the moment. A lot of teams don't think we work at all, but we work hard for our speed."

Conor's engineer is Ernie Gonella, also an Argentinian, who is a former driver and a car builder.

"He's a remarkable hands-on guy," Derek said. "He raced himself and he has an innate ability to understand what Conor says and needs at a pretty high level. They built a pretty good connection very quickly."

Conor has been penalized twice this year. He was given a stop-and-go penalty in New Jersey for jumping the start but the Star Mazda officials admitted after the race they had made a mistake.

"They apologized to me afterwards," Daly said. "They said they made a mistake. But that didn't get us any points back. I still had a good race. I dropped all the way back to twenty-second and finished third."

© Eric McCombs
The second penalty came because of a technical oversight in a qualifying session at Autobahn Raceway on the first weekend in August.

"It was pretty silly," Conor admitted. "There's a series part that they gave us that was out of the range it was supposed to be in. So I got penalized for that and had to start last, but finished third again. I think I learned a lot coming from the back in both those races. I definitely learned a lot and I think I handled the situation well.

"It's just unfortunate that things like that happen in racing. You've got to be able to take it as it is and move on. I aimed to have as much fun as I could in the race and pass as many people as possible while still keeping the championship in mind. That was the goal."\

His dad agrees.

"Without a doubt Conor learned more and grew more as a driver in those two races when he was put to the back and had to fight through the field than if he had just led from the front," Derek remarked. "It's an ironic twist that the penalties are actually helping Conor grow as a driver."

Daly has been so quick this year that his rivals have paid him the ultimate compliment, protesting almost every component on his car.

"Many of the teams have complained that he can't be that fast and they had to find out why," Derek said. "So they've stripped apart every single part of his car over the course of the season. In New Jersey a group of team owners got together and insisted they take his engine away, which they did. So there were four test days where he didn't have an engine and couldn't use his car. He ran a spare car and was fastest in that car too and he gave his race engine a four-day rest. So again, ironically, they actually helped him."

Conor is fortunate to have his father as a mentor and teacher. Derek came up the hard way and raced quite successfully in Formula One, Indy Cars and IMSA GTP cars, winning the Sebring 12 Hours with Nissan in 1990 and '91. Derek ran a racing school called the Derek Daly Academy at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway from 1996-2005 and has written a book about how to go racing. The Derek Daly Academy continues today as a driver management and development organization. Derek is a believer in a holistic approach embracing fitness, nutrition, a proper attitude and state of mind as well as business training.

"My dad is obviously a great tool," Conor remarks. "I have a really good advantage having a father who's been through the entire sport--Formula One, Indy car racing and sports car racing. He's got a lot of experience and knows what he's talking about so it's great to have him at almost all my races and have him managing my career. It's definitely a big help and I'm really thankful to have him in my corner."

Derek has talked to other people about managing Conor's career but father and son have agreed to continue working together. Derek says he's able to maintain enough distance from Conor and his team during race weekends to avoid any elements of being too much of a stage door parent.

"I think Conor would agree that I am more hands-off now," Derek observed. "There was a time when I was very much hands-on, particularly in karting. But I'm much more hands-off now. The more people I can surround Conor with who can teach him directly, the quicker he will learn. My job is not necessarily to teach him what my experiences were, but to put him in a position to go through the experiences with good people so that he learns for himself on a first-hand basis from good people.

"Ninety percent of the coaching that I now do with Conor is away from the race. I do very little at the racetrack except to watch the environment that surrounds him and try and make sure that continues to be a learning environment. Are the right people in place to keep teaching him at the rate that he needs to learn and can learn? He already knows the basics of being a racing driver. He's already on the learning curve of the technical setup of the car and he learns much quicker from an engineer than he will from me.

"I watch from a distance," Derek adds. "My job now is to manage the environment that he's in. Is he learning and growing from that environment? I'm a great believer that teen-agers can only process so much information. There are certain amounts they can absorb and there are certain amounts you have to leave for later down the road."

Where will Conor race next year? His unabashed goal is to make a full-time move to Europe to pursue his longterm goal of racing in F1.

© Eric McCombs
"I've been to a lot of IndyCar races this year and a lot of people have been saying, 'Oh, we've got to have you in IndyCar,'," Conor says. "But my passion is Formula One. We need an American doing well representing this country in Formula One. That's what I want to do and to be in Formula One you have to race in Europe. So I think overall the goal is to be racing in Europe. But first I have to finish this year and see what opportunities present themselves towards the end of the year."

In June, Conor and his dad enjoyed a very fruitful trip to the Canadian GP in Montreal.

"It was awesome," Conor grins. "I really enjoyed being there. Anytime you can be in a Formula One paddock it feels really cool. It was great to be there. I met a lot of fantastic people and got to talk to a lot of the guys with the different Formula One teams. I learned a lot by going there. It was a great experience. We had a lot of great conversations with a lot of great people.

"I actually got a new sponsor from going to that event. I met the guy at a Grand Prix Tours event. I saw him the next day at the track and talked to him and got his card. He's a great guy and we started a sponsorship relationship."

Barry Simpson runs Grand Prix Tours and Simpson invited Conor and Lucas di Grassi to compete with fans around the world in a video racing simulation game.

"The pedals and steering for the simulation weren't really that sensitive," Derek relates. "So both Lucas and Conor struggled and di Grassi left the function in disgust. He literally got up and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore!' And he got up and left."

Di Grassi was supposed to give a talk and be interviewed by a group of more than three hundred Grand Prix Tours guests and after he departed the scene young Daly was asked to fill in for the F1 driver.

"He had such a great onstage presence that people in the audience said they were going to support him forever," Derek grinned. "They wanted to know how they could get to know him better and we happened to meet them in the pitlane the next morning. So it was one of those amazing times when you meet people at the right time and they got engaged and want to be involved."

Conor's primary sponsor this year is Indeck Power & Capital owned by former CART and Champ Car team owner Jerry Forsythe who is also the co-owner of Cosworth with Kevin Kalkhoven. Following Champ Car's unification with the IRL Forsythe decided not to continue in Indy car racing, but he remains a great racing enthusiast and is a strong supporter of young Daly.

Conor will test a GP3 car with the Status team at Silverstone on September 6th. He and his father will then fly to the Italian GP at Monza the next weekend as they begin to decide on the right move for next year. Here's wishing them the best of luck.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page