The Final Mystery of Silly Season

We had been hearing rumbles for a while that the US Air Force sponsorship will not return to Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR). That confirmation came last Wednesday, from ECR as well as Conor Daly. Daly admitted that he had learned of the decision “…a little while ago”. I’m not sure if that means it was last week, last month or last quarter; but it is further proof that in IndyCar circles…where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

Conor Daly brought the Air Force sponsorship to IndyCar in 2018, for a one-off deal for the Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne in an association with Thom Burns Racing. The following year he took that sponsorship to Andretti Autosport, where he posted his best Indianapolis 500 finish of tenth. That is a little deceiving, because Daly spent a good part of the day running in the Top-Five before dropping to tenth at the finish.

For the past two seasons, the US Air Force partnered with ECR for near-fulltime sponsorship of the No. 20 car. I say “near-fulltime” because I know there were a couple of times when the No. 20 carried other liveries; but for the most part – the car carried the Air Force livery. Of course, in the Indianapolis 500, they were on the No. 47 car driven by Daly, while Ed Carpenter was in the No. 20.

I’ve always thought it was strange that in those two seasons, the guy who brought the Air Force sponsorship to the team (Daly), was actually competing to defeat the Air Force car while he was driving the ovals for Carlin Racing. I know that racing can create strange bedfellows, but I always wondered what the Air Force thought about Daly competing against them in a handful of races for the past two seasons.

I have a very good friend at work, who is retired from the Air Force after a twenty-year career. He follows no sports, and knows absolutely nothing about motorsports. When Daly’s Thunderbird livery was unveiled for the 2018 Indianapolis 500, he tuned in to watch even though Daly was starting thirty-third (he finished one lap down, in twenty-first). It did not convince him to be an IndyCar fan, but there was at least one extra set of eyeballs watching that normally would not have been.

The following week, he asked me how much they spent on that one race. I knew where he was going with this, so I low-balled my estimate to a vague $400,000 – knowing that figure is pretty much a bare-bones estimate. Even that figure infuriated him, as a US taxpayer. I told him that recruiting commercials during football games probably exceed that figure over one month’s time. He questioned how many fans would be enticed to sign up from Daly’s sponsorship. I had no answer.

Sponsorships from the Armed Forces have always been a little dicey to justify to some. As an IndyCar fan, I like to think that it brings in veterans and creates new fans; but I can understand why some taxpayers have a hard time embracing this as a justified expense. Even I had a hard time justifying foreign drivers in cars sponsored by the US military. It just seemed a little awkward to have Vitor Meira (Brazil) or Dan Wheldon (UK) promoting the US National Guard, when they were driving for Panther Racing. Just think how strange it would sound to have Graham Rahal promoting the Brazilian Air Force or the RAF.

It’s nothing new in IndyCar, NASCAR or NHRA, and we will probably see it again at some point. But for now, the US Air Force is completely out of the NTT IndyCar Series.

What does that mean for Conor Daly and/or ECR going forward? From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem promising for the Daly/ECR relationship to continue. I think if the Air Force returned in 2022, the chances were pretty good that Daly would also. Now that the bomb has been dropped (no pun intended) that they will not return – I think all bets are off.

Supposedly, both ECR and Daly have some other sponsorship possibilities in the works, but I’m not sure they coincide with each other. If I had to bet money, I would say that this opens the door for Ryan Hunter-Reay to step into the No. 20 car for the non-ovals and a third ECR car for the Indianapolis 500. I have no idea how they will fill the void left by the departure of the US Air Force, but teams and veteran drivers usually find a way.

What will become of Conor Daly, if the ECR seat goes to Hunter-Reay or someone else? At this late date, most 2022 seats are taken. Dale Coyne has yet to confirm his plans for next season, but all indications are that Coyne will go with Takuma Sato and Indy lights runner-up David Malukas. After a miserable 2017 season at Foyt, I’m not sure there was much of a chance of Daly returning there; but that possibility went away with Foyt signing Kyle Kirkwood a couple of weeks ago.

Right now, I’m thinking that Daly had better be hoping that the rumor about Carlin merging with Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) comes true. If Carlin stands alone in 2022, I think it will be for Max Chilton only. If the two teams merge, it could mean that confirmed JHR driver Callum Ilott might have a fulltime teammate. It would make sense to team an experienced veteran like Daly with their young rookie Ilott. Daly would already know some of the team personnel, and he had some decent runs with Carlin, and even won the pole at Iowa (Race One) in 2020. It seems logical to pair Daly with the promising, but inexperienced Ilott. But logic doesn’t always win out in these type of situations.

Conor Daly has already said that he has some sponsorship possibilities working for 2022. If that’s the case, it would make a lot of sense to take it to a merged Carlin and JHR. If such a merger doesn’t happen, who knows what will become of Carlin, Max Chilton or Conor Daly. This is about the only real mystery left of the 2021-22 silly season – the final whereabouts of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Conor Daly, the two remaining drivers most likely to drive next season (in my opinion). Stay tuned.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “The Final Mystery of Silly Season”

  1. Tom from Lake Forest Says:

    Great column. Thanks.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    While the effectiveness of their auto racing sponsorships may be questionable, I’ve never really struggled with military racing sponsorships as a taxpayer. Non-conscripted militaries advertise to attract recruits (or to bolster their image with the public… so as to attract recruits) and have done so for centuries. Their marketing folks are given a budget and are hired to spend it as effectively as they can. Of course, I say that as a racing fan, but I also didn’t struggle with military sponsorships of fishing tournaments or professional wrestling (which were singled out to be cut along with racing in a failed amendment to the 2012 defense spending bill).

    Supposedly, providing hospitality for Guard members was as key a component to the old National Guard sponsorship as recruitment was… so these kinds of sponsorships can have other aims too… though I’m guessing the Guard members hosted at the races may have taken a cash payment instead, if offered…

  3. Colorado Springs Northsider Says:

    Unless he is buying the ride, what has Daly done to deserve being hired by Juncos/Hollinger? Spencer Pigot faired better at ECR in 18 and 19 then Daly did in subsequent years, JR could actually help with set ups on a new team, we don’t know Linus Lunquest’s ceiling but he can’t have worse upside then Dly, shake the dust off of past IndyCar winner and Indy 500 savant Carlos Munoz who is not even 30, what about any number of F1 ladder drivers that will not get a shot (Schwartzman….) point being in almost 100 drives we know what Conor Daly is…

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