5 things from IndyCar Content Days: How Daly saved his career, Herta discusses F1, more

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Conor Daly has a message for the world at-large: don’t knock on a businessman’s trip to Las Vegas.

His own back in mid-December to celebrate his 30th birthday may have saved his IndyCar career.

Daly’s self-telling of the tale of how he landed a multi-year sponsorship program with cryptocurrency company BitNile Holdings, securing him a full-time ride with Ed Carpenter Racing through 2023, highlighted the insightful nuggets drivers revealed throughout IndyCar’s second day of its annual media tour held in downtown Indy.

Ed Carpenter Racing driver Conor Daly (47) waves to racing fans during a parade, Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana.
Ed Carpenter Racing driver Conor Daly (47) waves to racing fans during a parade, Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana.

“This is truly a very ‘Conor Daly’-type story on how it all came about,” he said. “Everything seemed like it was going the wrong way. All the deals we’d been working on had been pitter-pattering out, and I’d planned a 30th birthday trip to Vegas. At the time, I’d been talking to a longtime friend of me and (step-father and IMS president Doug Boles), and he had this idea for a meeting with this guy who was interested in IndyCar.

“He asked me, ‘Are you going to be in Vegas Dec. 17-18?’ And I said, ‘Funny you ask. Yes I will be.’”

More: 5 things to know from Day 1 of IndyCar Content Days

As Daly went on to explain, he was there with a small group of friends that included fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi and X Games gold medalist Travis Pastrana just one month after Daly had learned the U.S. Air Force – ECR’s primary sponsor on the No. 20 that brought to the team originally – had declined to move forward in 2022. The news left ECR testing multiple options for the ride and searching far-and-wide for a sponsor to fill the hole.

Daly kept faith, but was increasingly looking towards other racing opportunities in the NASCAR truck series or Indy 500-only options. All the sudden, he felt he’d been given a possible lifeline.

“We woke up Saturday, and my friends were still celebrating, and I was not. I was locked in, sweating,” Daly said. “And then Travis got in, and it’s tempting to do what Travis wants to do, which is jump off a building, but I said, ‘Hey, I can’t. I’ve got a meeting.’

“I get there at 6 p.m., and by the next hour-and-a-half, we shook on a deal. It was the craziest thing ever. I got back and shouted at (my friends) and said, ‘I think I’m employed!’”

Daly soon texted team owner Ed Carpenter near midnight east coast time, and Daly’s boss called him at 5 a.m. in Vegas with the driver still wide-awake relishing the news.

“He said, ‘Is that legit?’ And I told him, ‘I think so,’” Daly said. “People always say, ‘Conor, you spend too much time in Vegas.’ But guess what? It got me a job this time, losers.

“(BitNile founder) Todd Ault, he’s big on under-valued assets, and he thought I was an under-valued asset.”

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jimmie Johnson (48) looks out from his helmet during practice and qualifications day Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, ahead of Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 and IndyCar Grand Prix doubleheader.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jimmie Johnson (48) looks out from his helmet during practice and qualifications day Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, ahead of Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 and IndyCar Grand Prix doubleheader.

Jimmie Johnson eyeing extended IndyCar career

Jimmie Johnson won’t be the oldest Indy 500 rookie in the race’s 106 editions come May, but he won’t be far off. Jean Alessi grabbed the mark just weeks away from 48 years old in 2012, and yet Johnson, who will be 46 in May, hopes that unlike Alesi, his rookie campaign won’t be his last.

A month ago, Johnson formally announced his plans to run the full 2022 IndyCar calendar, including the 500, for Chip Ganassi Racing following his road-and-street program a year ago after stepping away from full-time NASCAR competition. Initially, he and Ganassi announced a two-year deal in the fall of 2019 for Johnson’s foray into open-wheel racing to satisfy his lifelong dream. At the time, Johnson said the idea of running ovals, and therefore the full calendar, wasn’t in the cards due to safety concerns and his stage in life. But, as many expected, it took less than two months from his IndyCar debut to make a full 180.

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Johnson described Tuesday the moment he was certain he wanted to pursue an Indy 500 ride last May, while working with NBC’s Steve Letarte in an analyst role.

“I knew (watching the 500 in-person) would take me one way or another,” he said. “After watching the first car go by, I looked at Steve, and he goes, ‘Okay, what happened? In or out?’ And I said, ‘In.’”

From there, Johnson and Ganassi arranged an oval test at Texas Motor Speedway, as well as a day to run through his 500 rookie orientation program on the IMS oval, and primary sponsor Carvana provided the sponsorship support to make it all possible.

So, after all that, will 2022 be it for Johnson in IndyCar? One corner of the rampant rumor mill has already pegged Alexander Rossi to man the No. 48 in 2023 when his contract with Andretti expires at the end of this year – something both sides have denied. For his own say in the matter, Johnson said he hopes the No. 48 is still in his hands next year and beyond, despite his age.

“There’s really nothing formal after this year, but my intent and desire is to keep doing this as long as I can. I’m having so much fun and really am enjoying this challenge,” he said. “On my oval journey, I think I will perform better, look better, run better in Year 2, and I might even be able to be an IndyCar race winner.

“There’s a lot of steps in between now and getting that done, but I feel like Chip is open to it, and team members would be really excited to have me back another year.”

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon (9) climbs into his car Saturday, May 22, 2021, during qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon (9) climbs into his car Saturday, May 22, 2021, during qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dixon, Rahal voice concerns over car weight

IndyCar is in the midst of its first full-car overhaul in a decade, and one year from the start of its rollout with the debut of the hybrid 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, some of the series’ most veteran drivers are voicing concerns regarding the trajectory of its development.

The new power unit, outfitted with a kinetic energy recovery system designed to transform energy from braking into added horsepower, will add roughly 120 pounds to what many believe is an already heavy car after a series of safety additions since its debut in 2012 – most notably, the aeroscreen in 2020.

“Those (safety additions) are no-brainers,” Scott Dixon said Tuesday. “Maybe we haven’t been as quick on chassis development or upgrading, though. The cars are getting heavy, and that itself is becoming a safety (issue) because the speeds are staying pretty similar.

“I’d say the Indy car right now is more of a junior category car. It’s not particularly fast, not particularly nimble, very heavy, without a whole lot of grip. We’ve morphed into a car that’s really just changed (since 2012).”

The issue, of course, is multi-faceted. Debuting a hybrid power unit brings IndyCar along as other motorsports entities experiment with hybrids or have even weighed electrification. New technology like the KERS unit is hoped to better position IndyCar to attract a third engine manufacturer it’s been courting for nearly a decade. But that development, while keeping much of the rest of the car status quo has led to the weight concerns.

Using lighter materials to offset that weight jump would then spike the cost of a new chassis, which larger teams may have to purchase as many as 10 of once its development is complete. At the moment, IndyCar has plans to phase in new parts of its new body over several years to help spread the cost out for teams both big and small, but such a plan continues a notion that has existed for several years in IndyCar: a car that is never truly ‘finished’, or one where changes are a necessity, rather than a luxury.

“This isn’t a knock on where we’re at, but a key focus going forward on the next generation of car has to be a drop in the actual chassis weight,” Graham Rahal said. “Really, it’s just important we get the car built right the first time around. I have all the faith in the world in Dallara. They’ve always kept me safe, and they’ve done a good job, but I think this is really important.”

For the second time in three race weekends, Colton Herta looked as if he had a podium on his hands, only for late-race fortunes to go awry at WWT Raceway
For the second time in three race weekends, Colton Herta looked as if he had a podium on his hands, only for late-race fortunes to go awry at WWT Raceway

Herta says F1 not career's sole focus

Despite the crumbling of Michael Andretti’s bid to purchase a Formula 1 team and take American IndyCar star Colton Herta with him, the 21-year-old confirmed Tuesday he continues to pine for an opportunity to one day compete in the premier open-wheel racing series.

But F1 is not where Herta’s deepest love lies – perhaps a comforting notion for IndyCar fans and media who cautioned the winner of three races a year ago from leaving a series in IndyCar where he could spend two decades or more competing for championships and nearly ever mark in the record books.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to do F1,” Herta said. “But I want to do a lot of stuff in my career, and I lot of it, you need the timing. F1 is one of those things where, if you’re 28, you’re not going to F1, unfortunately. That’s just how it works.

“The time is right for me, and if I got the opportunity, I’d have to have a good think about it. I’d most likely do it, cause I want to run in F1 at some point.”

As Herta clarified, though, F1 is by no means the be-all end-all goal for his racing career. Yes, he spent more than a year of his teenage days trying to carve out a career in the initial series that most F1 veterans start in, and yes, the pull as the first full-time American F1 driver in more than a decade would undoubtedly be strong – particularly if it came as part of an American-owned team.

But as he sees the road map for his career, F1 would be merely a massive box to check. He has no visions of a 15-plus year career like Lewis Hamilton. IndyCar is what he grew up on, watching his father Bryan finish up his own racing career and falling in love with tracks like Laguna Seca and Long Beach that he’s now become a dominant force upon. There’s a nostalgia there overpowering the luster of globetrotting in F1 when it comes to his long-term future.

“People forget that I’m 21 years old and think that I can’t come back in five years and still run 15 years in IndyCar and be 40,” Herta said. “I definitely want to give (F1) a crack if I got the opportunity, but I’m definitely not disappointed in IndyCar.

“I like this series more than any series in the world, and I enjoy racing in it a lot. There’s just some other stuff I’d like to try in my racing career also.”

Simon Pagenaud gives a kiss to his wife Hailey Pagenaud, at the unveiling of this year's Indianapolis 500 ticket during a ceremony at City Market, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.
Simon Pagenaud gives a kiss to his wife Hailey Pagenaud, at the unveiling of this year's Indianapolis 500 ticket during a ceremony at City Market, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Pagenaud: 'Things change when you become a dad'

Simon Pagenaud’s never been short on confidence or motivation, and yet, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner says the growth of his family last May had a lasting effect on how he views the pursuit of excellence on-track.

The birth of he and his wife Hailey’s son Marley coincided with what typically already be Pagenaud’s busiest month of the year – May. But instead of letting that rock his world and derail from his performance, the former Team Penske driver and newest member of Meyer Shank Racing said Tuesday it gave him an extra edge beyond the frustration of starting 26th.

“Things do change when you become a dad. There’s all this love all the sudden for this little creature. And I must say, now, every day is like winning Indianapolis,” he said. “Every day there’s something new. He’s growing, changing, evolving, and you’re seeing this human become his own human.

“I’m an emotional person, and I love that part of my life right now, but it hasn’t changed my desire to win or my competitive mind. I go to the gym every morning, but I just wake up earlier, and my days are longer, but it gives me this responsibility to be an even better driver. I want my kid to be proud of me, and if you saw me run Indy last year, I drove with my teeth out cause I wanted my kid to be proud in the future of his dad.”

In the biggest race of the year and during a contract year, Pagenaud drove up into 3rd-place, and by the end, he was the driver eventual winner (and his new teammate) Helio Castroneves said he was most worried about needing to beat.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Conor Daly, Jimmie Johnson and Colton Herta discuss futures

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