They Deserve What They Get

For this to be the offseason, there sure was a lot of IndyCar news dropped in a week’s time. The news ranged from the expected (Verizon gone after next year) to the total surprise (Ed Jones signing with Ganassi); and from the disappointing (Conor Daly out at Foyt) to the news that makes you smile (Jim Cornelison will return to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” in 2018). For the last full week in October, we IndyCar fans have had a lot to talk about lately.

In the next several days, I plan on tackling all of those topics. For today, however, I want to focus on the disappointment for the week – the dismissal of Conor Daly from AJ Foyt Enterprises.

There are times when a lot of fans will champion an up and coming driver for no other reason than the fact that he or she is an American. While I’m as red, white and blue as the next guy – I think I’ve made it clear over the years that a driver’s nationality is way down on my list of reasons for why I cheer for or against a driver. I focus more on driving talent and likeability, which is based more on a gut feeling than anything you can measure.

I always considered Brazil’s Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves as extremely likeable. Does that mean I like all Brazilians? No. I found Brazilians Jaime Camara, Raphael Matos and Mario Moraes to be rather unlikable. How a driver interacts with fans carries a lot of weight with me. In fact, I’ll pull for a very likeable driver that has very little talent – so likeability may be the number-one thing I look for when deciding which drivers I pull for.

When I first started to hear the name Conor Daly a few years ago, all I knew was that he was the son of Derek Daly and was an aspiring F1 driver in the making. Since I don’t follow an of the ladder series, I just figured he was just another someone I would hear about for a while and the name would go away.

As time went on, I began to hear his name more and more. Then I heard Doug Boles on Trackside describing stepson Conor’s career in detail. Suddenly I was hearing more about this kid other than his GP3 and GP2 results and he seemed a bit more human. Still I paid no real attention to him until he came to race in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 for AJ Foyt. It was then that I realized what a likeable driver Conor Daly was.

As an Indianapolis 500 rookie, Conor Daly did not do well. He was the only practice incident during the week of practice leading up to qualifying. He qualified on the inside of the last row, not great – but that’s a spot where a one-off from the Foyt team is expected to qualify. Although Daly finished twenty-second in the race, he was still running at the end, albeit two laps down.

After spending all of 2014 in GP2 in Europe, he returned to the US in 2015. He split time between sports cars and IndyCar. He turned heads as a last minute fill-in for Dale Coyne after replacement driver Rocky Moran, Jr. broke his thumb in practice at Long Beach. Daly first got in the car on Saturday morning. He finished seventeenth, but on the lead lap. In the process, opened a lot of people’s eyes (mine included) as he proved himself worthy of just stepping into these cars and being competitive.

In the Indianapolis 500 the next month while driving for Sam Schmidt, Daly qualified on the inside of Row Eight, but his car caught fire on the Parade Lap. He never even took the green flag, as his day was done before it got started. But Daly was tabbed for Detroit and Toronto by Schmidt to fill-in for the injured James Hinchcliffe, with mixed results. He finished nineteenth in Belle Isle’s Saturday race, but came back the next day to finish an impressive sixth. He followed that up with a so-so twelfth at Toronto.

The next year looked to be his year. For 2016, he had sponsorship from Jonathan Byrd and got a full season with Dale Coyne Racing. Again, mixed results plagued Daly. He led many laps in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis before a late pit-stop earned him a sixth-place finish. A second place finish at Detroit and a few other Top-Six finishes were countered with too many sub-fifteenth place finishes. Was it the driver or the car? It’s hard to tell, but the other Dale Coyne car fared even worse splitting time between Luca Filippi, Gabby Chaves and RC Enerson. That car only cracked the Top-Ten once – a ninth place finish at Watkins Glen with Enerson behind the wheel. I don’t think anyone could say that Daly had squandered a good ride that season.

This past season, he moved to AJ Foyt’s team. Looking back, this ride had disaster written all over it. Foyt was in the midst of change. They were changing engine manufacturers, aero kits, engineers and drivers – all for 2017. Aside from that, the No.41 team was moving from Houston to Indianapolis thereby splitting the two teams. Gone were Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth. Gone was the Honda engine and aero kit. The Hawksworth car was even changing numbers, from No.41 to No.4.

The all-new Foyt team had Carlos Muñoz in the No.14 Chevrolet based in Houston, while Conor Daly was in the No.4 Chevrolet based out of Indianapolis. It sounded like a challenge from the start, but we longtime fans of AJ Foyt hoped against hope that his team could pull it off. They couldn’t. Muñoz finished sixteenth in points, while Daly finished eighteenth.

But near the end of the season, Daly showed significant improvement – including a hard-earned fifth place finish on the oval at Gateway. Keep in mind that ovals are not Daly’s strong suit, so this was a great result. But it wasn’t enough.

It became obvious when Tony Kanaan was named to drive the No.14 car, that Muñoz was out. But all indications were that Daly would be retained. After all, it only made sense to keep at least one driver for continuity sake. They would have had the grizzled veteran in Kanaan and the young gun in Daly. Their two senses of humor would have made this an entertaining team to follow, even if the results weren’t there. Plus, Daly was reportedly a favorite of sponsor ABC Supply Co. It would make sense to take suggestions from your sponsor when your cars are bringing up the rear in points. But it was not to be. Tuesday night, we learned that Daly would not be retained either.

When did sensibility and logic ever apply to this team, anyway?

It is well documented that I am a big AJ Foyt fan. He is my all-time favorite driver. Period. Consequently I always pull for his team, although it is always as an underdog.

The Foyt team has made many curious decisions over the years. Some I watched while silently shaking my head. Others I was a little more vocal about. But this move absolutely baffles me. Well, not really. When things don’t add up, never forget the money trail – and this has a bag of money casting its shadow over the entire thing.

AJ Foyt Enterprises will have their third set of drivers in their cars in three seasons. This is ludicrous! I’ve never owned a race team and I’ve never run one, but I know that this is a bad move. Fans know more than we’re given credit for. I don’t know how to cook either, but I know a bad meal from a good one. It doesn’t take an insider to see that this is a short-sighted move. With so much change over the past year, including new drivers – just how high were their expectations going into 2017? Did they really expect to compete with Team Penske for the title?

I don’t know a whole lot, but I know it takes time to build team chemistry. Do AJ and Larry Foyt really think that with a constant revolving door of drivers and key personnel, eventually they’ll hit on the magic combination that will suddenly win championships? I’m hoping they’re smarter than that.

When I referred to a big bag of money, the word is that Brazilian Indy Lights driver Matheus Leist is in line for Daly’s seat. Who? That’s code-speak for he’s bringing a ton of money. When I first heard Leist could get the seat, I imagined a Brazilian conspiracy. But I did some checking and found out that Kanaan had nothing to do with this. So it goes back to money.

I can’t tell Larry or AJ Foyt how to spend their money or run their team. But I can tell them that they lost a ton of fans this week, including me if that really matters to them.

There are two silver linings to this. The very next day, it was announced that Ed Jones would be joining Chip Ganassi Racing in the No.10 car for 2018. That means that a seat that was presumed filled at Dale Coyne Racing has opened up. Conor Daly is a leading contender to land that ride. What’s the second silver lining? Daly no longer has to drive that pig of a car that Foyt gave him this season.

I’ve long said that AJ Foyt’s team is where careers go to die. As much as I like him, I’m afraid that Tony Kanaan may suffer the same fate. But he’ll be forty-three next season and has nothing left to prove. He’s already won an IndyCar championship and an Indianapolis 500. But Conor Daly is still in the early prime of his career. Is he the best young driver in the paddock? No, not by a long shot. But I don’t think his results over the past two years are indicative of his talent either. He could eventually become one of the best and I’d hate to see him waste those years at a Foyt team that obviously cannot think ahead of the next race.

Conor Daly will land on his feet. IndyCar needs for him to. As I said earlier, he is one of those very likeable drivers that also seems to have talent. I was late to jump on the Daly bandwagon, but I’m fully on board now. He is a fan favorite. Add to that the fact that he is an American and he appears to have the whole package – but apparently not to Larry and AJ Foyt.

I’m still an AJ Foyt fan and always will be. But after this move, I’ll find it hard to cheer for his team – despite the fact that Tony Kanaan will be driving there next year.

Many car owners of smaller teams have laid out a blueprint on how to successfully grow their team – Sam Schmidt, Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter come to mind. They don’t make wholesale changes in the cockpit nor do they allow knee-jerk reactions and emotions to affect their decision making. They realize that it takes time to grow and nurture team chemistry and you can’t do that by constantly changing personnel. Larry and AJ Foyt haven’t seemed to figure this out. They deserve what they get.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “They Deserve What They Get”

  1. I hope Connor is able to land at Coyne or somewhere within the paddock. I too tend to throw my support behind the drivers that are great with fans. I also think that Connor’s “stock” will rise once the filming of the new season of The Amazing Race is completed where he and his roommate Rossi are competing. Not talking mega stardom or anything but any positive mainstream attention a driver or the Indy Car series can get is much needed.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    While Matheus Leist is undoubtedly bringing money to his (likely) Foyt ride, he was no hack in Indy Lights. He did win 3 races last year, as many as anyone on the season. That’s as many Lights wins as James Hinchcliffe, Sage Karam, and Jack Hawksworth, and more than RC Enerson, Charlie Kimball, Junior Strous, Logan Gomez, and Craig Dollansky.

    That said, I would absolutely like to see Daly in another car this year. I’d argue he has outperformed his typically backmarker equipment often enough to be worthy of a full time seat. Heck, I was impressed back in 2013 when he hopped into one of the Team Moore Indy Lights dog sleds for a one off and drove it to the podium.

    • Yeah, I mean Leist isn’t terrible, and I’d have put him as one of my three frontrunners to win the Lights championship in ’18 (alongside Colton Herta and maybe Victor Franzoni), but most of his success came in a 5-race span in the middle of the season (finishes: 3-1-1-4-1; zero podiums in the five races that came before or the six races that came after). I’m a little circumspect about his prior experience, too, even though he won the British F3 championship in 2016 (against a grid of guys that don’t seem to have done a whole lot to move up the ladder in 2017, except for Lando Norris who parachuted in for 11 starts, winning 4 and scoring 4 other podiums, and Colton Herta, who ran six of the races that Lando didn’t, winning one and scoring two other podiums).

      Whatever the case, he might be really, really good, but I think this is another case of “moving up too soon” (although I thought a lot the same about Ed Jones, and I was clearly not correct on him), and I do think Foyt would be better served to put somebody more experienced in that car. Guess we’ll see.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Oh, I would agree he would probably be moving up too soon, I just think his Lights results shouldn’t make him a complete “who is this guy?”

        Of course, the same could have been applied to Mark Taylor, and I used to regularly say “who is Mark Taylor?” in racing discussions during his one partial season in the IRL. I think it was because his name was so enjoyably generic.

  3. Doug Benefiel Says:

    The answer to your poll question is hell yes. The duo of Kannan and Daly would have arguably been the most compelling pairing in the field. ABC Supply has been an unbelievable supporter of Foyt’s underperforming program, some positive press would surely be a welcome change of pace. AJ’s name doesn’t mean the same as it does to my age group and the need to foster a younger demographics is sorely needed. ABC must be questioning some of the decisions coming out of Houston. Keep up the blog I enjoy all of them. Is it May Yet!

  4. In his book, “AJ” by Neely, the elder Foyt clearly expressed disdain for “ride buyers,” but how else can you explain this deal. Who’s next? Dr. Jack Miller?

  5. Carburetor Says:

    Like you, George, AJ was my boyhood racing hero–in the days before the 500 was televised, I was glued to the radio to make certain I did not miss any mention of his exploits and position on the track. Alas, his race team has become a chronic disappointment–IMO far overshadowed by teams with less means and resources. Releasing Daly is yet in another string of questionable decisions.

  6. Ed Emmitt Says:

    Oil Pressure hit it out of the park today.The revolving door at Foyt Racing has become a joke. I love A.J. Foyt but throwing drivers under the bus every year is getting old IMO. Foyt Racing business plan will never become successful under the current game plan.

  7. Tom from Lake Forest Says:

    Connor became a favorite for me at a Carb Nigh Burger Bash, where his sense of humor and self deprecation endeared him to the entire crowd. You’re right that IndyCar needs him to succeed in part because his personality helps make the show more fun to watch. Yes, driving skills are critical and he seems to have an adequate amount of those – but the ability to form personal connections with fans and sponsors is important too, and it doesn’t seem to be something that can be taught.

  8. If Conor Daly were to get the road and street course ride share with Ed Carpenter, that would strengthen ECR’s competence on road and street courses considerably, as Spencer Pigot is in the #21.

    A Bourdais / Daly combination at Dale Coyne Racing would score well, too. But Coyne has a reputation of hiring sponsored drivers for the #19.

    Both cars have won races in recent years which is something that cannot be said of the 2nd Foyt car. So Conor Daly is probably better off without that ride.

    It has to be said, though, that the Foyt team’s performance at the new track on the schedule, Gateway Motorsports Park, with a 5th and a 9th, has been impressive.

    It looks like strategically, the Foyt team has set their sights firmly on the Indy 500 this season. So they better hire a proven veteran “oval specialist” for their 3rd car there.

    Since I don’t follow IndyLights anywhere closely, for how long has Leist raced in the series?

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