Forty years ago last month, on the day John Watson was pipped for the drivers’ championship by Keke Rosberg, Derek Daly finished a very creditable sixth in a Williams-Ford at the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas. The race around the car park of the famous casino was the Dubliner’s last outing in Formula One.
Within a few weeks, he was behind the wheel of an unfamiliar IndyCar in Phoenix, Arizona and America became his new home. Next Sunday, his son Conor will make his Nascar debut in the number 50 Chevrolet at The Roval in Charlotte. Nothing more American than that.
In his day job, Daly junior drives for Ed Carpenter Racing in IndyCar, the less salubrious version of Formula One in these parts. This weekend, he will be in a different type of car on a different track working for a rather unorthodox owner. The Money Team Racing, a new arrival in America’s most popular motorsport, is owned by Floyd Mayweather Jnr, the superannuated boxer’s latest investment in an expanding business portfolio that ranges from clothing to skyscrapers, fitness to lucrative evenings beating up Conor McGregor.
Mayweather won’t be making bank from this particular arrangement, but Daly will garner plenty of publicity, a valuable currency in this strange corner of the sports industrial complex where the extent of a driver’s financial backing is often as important as the size of his talent. He has plenty of the latter and has found a way to dredge up a lot of the former too when it matters most. Like the end of last season when he was without a sponsor and looking like he was going to have to sit out the start of the IndyCar 2022 campaign. Until he went to Vegas to celebrate his 30th birthday and sat down with a wealthy Bitcoin player with a passion for fast cars.
“I got to this meeting at like six o’clock in the afternoon,” said Daly. “By the next hour and a half we shook on a deal. I was like, ‘Wow, that was the craziest thing.’ People always say, ‘Conor, you spend too much time in Vegas’. I was like, ‘Guess what? Got me a job this time you losers!’ It was great. Worked out so well.”
BitNile Holdings signed him on a two-year deal. The tenor of his quotes hints at the fact Daly is a media-savvy character, a part-time podcast host whose genial personality has garnered him fame beyond his achievements on the track. When he led 40 laps of last year’s Indy 500, the raucous crowd cheering each one like the local kid from Noblesville was about to win the race itself spoke to his popularity. Then again, those same fans had known about his precocity since he was winning national go-kart titles at 10, bringing home the Walter Hayes Trophy from Silverstone at 16, and taking time off from high school to test for Formula Renault and Formula 3 teams in Hungary and England.
While some of Daly’s own fondest childhood memories were hanging out at the driving school his father used to run in Las Vegas, he had racing in his genes on the other side too. His mother Beth was a professional jet ski racer who used to breastfeed him between races, and his younger brother Christian is a huge star in that sport today. With red hair and freckles, and an appearance on a season of CBS’s hugely popular reality show The Amazing Race on his CV, he is one of the most recognisable faces on the IndyCar circuit, even though he has yet to win a race and only managed to reach the podium a single time in eight seasons.
Those statistics don’t quite tell the whole story. His very endurance at this level is something of a triumph in itself. Being the son of Derek Daly, who, after he stopped driving, became a television broadcaster and motivational speaker, opened a few doors along the way. But, even for somebody with a resumé that included a Star Mazda championship, race wins in Indy Lights and GP3, plus impressive performances at GP2 in Europe, piecing together a commercial package to race full-time proved tricky. Once, famously, he happened to be hanging around the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach when a driver got injured and he hopped in the car at 45 minutes notice with a seat borrowed from the great Mario Andretti.
His father knows the “have helmet, will travel” attitude well. That was the life he lived. At 16, Derek Daly bought a 1952 Ford Anglia to race as a stock car out in Santry and took his first steps towards forging a life in motor racing. It required a stint mining iron ore in Australia to eventually fund his dream to go from Mondello Park to leading on the last lap of the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix. When he subsequently moved to England to try to make it in the early seventies, he hollowed out a ramshackle 56-seater coach and cut the back off it so he could stow his Hawke DL 15 onboard. The bus served as his car transporter and mobile home while he tried to attract attention and sponsors.
Last week, his son secured a Nascar drive because of a deal struck between a brash boxer turned business mogul and a Bitcoin miner. Same sport. Different world.