There are many ways into Motorsports, the recent crop of Formula 1 and IndyCar drivers makes that obvious. But winning in it, is a different matter. In F1 now, it’s pretty straight forward. Start from the front; be faster than 19 other drivers; and have a Mercedes or Ferrari engine.
In IndyCar it’s a bit more complex. Starting from the front doesn’t guarantee a victory; team-mates aren’t there to help; and damage/error doesn’t necessary mean game over. What IndyCar is, is driver and engineer strategy, driver skill, and a bit of luck. Which explains why 10 different drivers have won a race during the 2017 season. But it also might help explain the course trajectories of two highly touted drivers: Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly.
In many ways, these two drivers are examples of domestic and international talents, of acquired talent and gene-bred. In others, they are a metaphor of the quote by Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” So how did we get two promising drivers with two very different present career outlooks?
Both started with similar domestic success. Newgarden and Daly started in North American karts fairly young. Newgarden started at 13-years-old and Daly at 10. Daly won World Karting Association Grand Nationals, while Newgarden won the Junior Yamaha Championship and the Junior TAG World Championship, before both went to Skip Barber Racing School. A racing school and host of several junior formula racing series. The two would cross paths briefly at Skip Barber in 2008 and around this time is when their careers started to diverge.
Daly went on to the Star Mazda Championship series in 2009 and would win the series’ championship in 2010 after finishing 3rd in 2009. The next few years would see Daly spend most of his time hopping around Europe in the GP3 and GP2; with a brief excursion to Indy Lights. Between 2011-2013, Daly competed in 48 GP3 races, winning two races in three seasons and finishing 3rd in the championship in 2013. In two part-time seasons in GP2, Daly would finish no higher than P7 in 20 races with several retirements. But still his star was still on the rise.
Newgarden meanwhile, stayed with Skip Barber for two seasons, racing in several of the racing schools regional series. For Newgarden, his years at Skip Barber would end with two 2nd place championship finishes in 2007 and 2008. Newgarden would finish the British Formula Ford Championship as runner-up in 2009. In 2010, in 15 GP3 races, he finished 18th in the championship, but also achieved one pole. In 2011, Newgarden landed a full-time drive with Sam Schmidt Motorsports (currently Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) in Indy Lights; and won the 2011 Indy Lights title. This led to a full-time drive with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in IndyCar in 2012.
While Daly spent his formative driving years in Europe, Newgarden stayed mostly stateside. In a 2015 interview with USAToday, Newgarden lamented the inability to acquire sponsorships to stay in Europe and try for F1; however that made his IndyCar decision clearer because of the Indy Lights drive offered by Schmidt.
Daly meanwhile spent most of his junior career in Europe, possibly because his father was former F1 driver Derek Daly. And wanted a F1 future for his son.
It is my opinion that because Newgarden spent so much time focusing on the IndyCar Series in his junior career that he is better equipped to handle it. Which has resulted so far in six career IndyCar wins, and being on the verge of an IndyCar championship. Whereas Daly is still trying to shake free of the GP3 and GP2 experiences and become more acclimated to the IndyCar experience, and struggling near the bottom in the championship.
This is where the aforementioned “strategy” aspect comes in. During their junior careers, one was focused on the North American IndyCar Series and therefore stayed in North America. The other, focused on Europe and then came back to North America, and trying to resolve the two different styles of racing are causing him problems.
Unlike Daly, Newgarden has no racing pedigree. And it might be because of this that Newgarden worked harder at fine-tuning his skill. Daly potentially, coasted on the fact that his father was a F1 and Champ Car driver, and thought he could do both because of it. And that ultimately cost him, I believe. If Daly had focused towards working for a F1 drive, because of his years in Europe he’d be better off and probably would be in F1 by now. In fact, he tested for Force India in 2012. Instead, bouncing between series and landing in a series he had little experience in is hurting his career outlook.
Then there’s luck. Newgarden lucked out with Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Indy Lights; graduating to IndyCar just a year later with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. From there, continuing on with CFH Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, and then being Roger Penske’s hand-picked choice for a seat at Team Penske. Meanwhile Daly, made inroads with A.J. Foyt for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 before jumping back into GP2 in 2014. And while he performed admirably in 2016 with Dale Coyne Racing, his reunion with Foyt has been less than ideal.
So there we are, two promising young drivers who took two different routes to IndyCar and only one has seen his star rise. This is by no means a slight on Daly, I believe he is a talented driver; however I believe that he settled for IndyCar rather than work for it. By all accounts, he worked towards F1 and quit half way. If he hadn’t, he’d be in F1 by now. Instead he’s 18th in the IndyCar standings.