Conor Daly has been a busy driver since being released from his IndyCar ride at Ed Carpenter Racing in June.
However, Daly is still without a full-time ride for 2024.
His IndyCar one-off start for Rahal Letterman Lanigan this Sunday may be his best opportunity to audition for something more permanent.
When Conor Daly was released from Ed Carpenter Racing shortly after the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in June, his future appeared somewhat murky. It’s hard for a race car driver in any series, particularly IndyCar, to get rides in the middle and second half of a season.
But the Indiana native, son of former IndyCar driver Derek Daly and stepson of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles, hasn’t stepped foot in any unemployment line since leaving ECR.
Instead, the 31-year-old Daly has been a man in demand:
He’s driven three IndyCar races for Meyer Shank Racing as a substitute for the injured Simon Pagenaud (still out with a concussion suffered at Mid-Ohio in early July).
He made a spot start in the Craftsman Truck Series in NASCAR at Mid-Ohio.
He’s coming off a stint this past weekend for Dreyer & Reinbold’s entry in the Nitrocross event in Utah.
He pulled a couple stints as a color analyst on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder for the Superstar Racing Experience.
And this weekend at WorldWide Technology Raceway (formerly Gateway), Daly will be racing for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, replacing Jack Harvey, who was released from the team last week.
“Well, honestly, it feels good to be employed to drive racing cars, I'll say that,” Daly said with a laugh in an exclusive interview with Autoweek. “I'm getting calls to drive cars and, you know, that's the goal. That's why we started this when I was a kid, when I wanted to pick up and make a living as a racing driver.”
His one-off start for RLL this Sunday is one of the best opportunities for Daly. RLL has some of the best equipment he has ever piloted and if he does well Sunday, he potentially could be asked back to return for an even further audition in the final two races of the IndyCar season upcoming at Portland and the season finale at Laguna Seca.
Daly is appreciative of the chances he already had with MSR and is looking confidently forward to his one-off start with RLL.
“There's not many drivers who have experience with most of the teams, like I have now, and each one requires a bit of a different style, a bit of a different adjustment,” he said. “So, I can't complain, life is good. It's an interesting scenario, for sure.”
Daly still refuses to talk about what happened at ECR.
“But I think a lot of what's happened this year was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I've been able to do a lot of really interesting stuff this year, which only diversifies my skill portfolio and builds the foundation as a driver even more.”
Being wanted and needed so much of late has Daly hoping he can cash in those markers and return to the IndyCar series as a full-time driver in 2024.
“Well, I hope that (being in demand) continues,” he said. “I do the best job that I can for partners that are involved in racing teams or situations that arise, whether it's IndyCar teams needing (owner) points and, you know, for Meyer Shank we were able to beat people that they needed to beat in the championship.
“It's the same kind of calling that I'm going to have with Rahal Letterman Lanigan this weekend, hopefully scoring a good amount of points. I think one of my things over the last few years is just being mistake-free. That's kind of what I always try to aim to be, as well as doing the best job that I can. And I’d love to do as much as I can do.”
But obviously, there’s an end game: a permanent ride.
“I would love for a couple of these opportunities at one point that would stick and become more of a permanent home for sure,” Daly said. “But until then it's better to be driving than not driving. Yeah, that's just kind of how it is.
“The situation is very fluid at the moment. I still have a lot of goals that I would like to accomplish in the IndyCar Series with a competitive team. That's a chance that I haven't really realized in the IndyCar Series yet, you know, with a top-of-the-line program. That would be the goal.
“However, I have to understand that being employed to drive in the IndyCar Series is still better than not, so any opportunity out there, we have to evaluate it. I'm not sure what opportunities there are, there’s (going to be) a lot of open seats, there’s a lot of different teams looking around for different opportunities. I have to figure out what kind of sponsorship support I have behind me because, obviously, the business element is most important. So we just have to evaluate who's willing to get behind us to support the next year, or the next step into the future. And then we'll go from there.”
But right now, the most important future step is the one Daly takes this weekend with RLL.
“It's awesome to race for that team,” he said. “It's one of the only teams that I haven't actually driven for in the series yet. I've known Bobby (Rahal) and Mike Lanigan for a long time, David Letterman, as well, so it's a great group.
“I don't know what the future looks like there. Honestly, of course, I would love to drive for that race team in the future. But I know they have a lot on their minds and a lot on their plate. And I would love that chance to race for them. But I certainly haven't had those discussions yet. We're very much focused on this weekend. And obviously, the better I do, the more easy it is for them to start looking at other options, right?
“This is a challenge to get into a new team, completely different feel that I'm going to have to adjust to after years of not having that type of thing for them. I know that every team has an entirely different feel and you really have to kind of undo habits that you've had, and change a little bit. Obviously, we want to do well for them. And if we can make an impression, the right impression, it doesn't hurt. But you also want to be realistic and know that there's a lot of options for them out there as well.”
Returning to Meyer Shank Racing may be another option for Daly if Pagenaud doesn’t return. The French driver’s contract with MSR expires at the end of this season. And his longtime teammate, Helio Castroneves, recently accepted a minority ownership stake in MSR and will scale back to just race for the team next year in the Indianapolis 500 as Castroneves bids for a record-breaking fifth win in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.
“Mike was kind of like forced into the position that he was in,” Daly said of team majority owner Mike Shank after the terrifying wreck Pagenaud was involved in during a practice session at Mid-Ohio.
“As a team owner, you never want to be in that position where you have to find substitute drivers. It's easy for people to ask questions about what you know what the next steps are. I can't speak for him, the only thing that I can say is that it was a true pleasure driving for his organization and I thoroughly enjoyed working with his team. It was a time that I will remember in my life.
“Working with professionals like them, and owners like Mike and Jim Mayer, I appreciate their passion for the sport.”
Daly made enough of an impression that he knows he’s still on Shank’s mind.
“One of the last texts that he sent me recently was like, ‘Hey, please answer the phone if I call you.’” Daly laughed. “I don’t think I would ever say no.”
If a full-time IndyCar ride doesn’t come about for next season, Daly isn’t ruling anything else out. He feels he has a good shot for at least a ride in the 2024 Indy 500, plus is available to compete part-time in additional races in the Craftsman Truck Series, and potentially the Xfinity Series, as well as maybe even trying his hand in IMSA or other sports car series.
“I feel like I would be able to slot in any of those quite well because I’ve driven a lot of different things,” Daly said. “The next few months are going to be important. I have no idea (what’s going to happen), but I'm not closing any doors of any kind.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on X (formerly Twitter) at @JerryBonkowski