After he competed in the Junior Knepper 55, an indoor midget race last month in DuQuoin, Illinois, Conor Daly added up his time on track. After all, he’d been inside the Southern Illinois Center – learning, watching, meeting fellow racers and, yes, racing – for hours.
But his actual seat time? A whopping 4.5 minutes.
For an INDYCAR driver doing some experimental freelancing in another form of racing, those 270 seconds were precious.
“It’s pretty wild to think you can learn anything and make progress in that amount of time,” Daly said. “But it’s definitely adding to my base of knowledge, for sure, when it comes to the whole driving spectrum.”
On Monday, Daly was set to begin practice for the 33rd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s the Super Bowl of midget events. Past winners include some of the biggest names in the sprint/midget genre, including Tony Stewart, Sammy Swindell, Billy Boat, Jay Drake, Rich Vogler, Kevin Swindell, Tracy Hines, Cory Kruseman, Dave Blaney and the late Bryan Clauson, who won the Chili Bowl in 2014 and competed in Indianapolis 500s in 2012, 2015 and 2016.
Daly’s path to the Chili Bowl was inspired by Clauson, Daly’s teammate in Indy Lights in 2011.
“Bryan was like, ‘You’ve got to come check out it. You’ve got to drive one sometime,’” Daly recalled. “I sort of just put it off. I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe at some point.’
“I have so much respect for the dirt racing community and what they’re doing literally every weekend of the year – weekends and weekdays – and I feel like it’s important to have some connection from INDYCAR to that world. If I can be that guy while trying to get to the Indy 500, that would be pretty cool.”
As for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in May, Daly is confident about the possibility of securing a ride. He finished 21st last year for Dale Coyne Racing in the fifth Indy 500 of his career, then stepped into the Harding Racing No. 88 for races at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Pocono.
“I’m feeling pretty good about the Indy 500 this year,” Daly said. “I would love to do more than that this year, but my focus is on Indy. We’re definitely down the road of working toward that process. Obviously, Indy is what we can sell around, but I feel good. We’ve made a lot of great connections since the end of last season. We’ll see what happens.”
In the meantime, he’s immersed in a form of racing that’s incredibly difficult but offers little opportunity for an unfamiliar rookie to practice.
“There’s no practice; you just go racing,” Daly said. “I can see why people race 100 times a year (on short tracks), because after 20 races you probably feel like you’ve got a good practice session under your belt. It’s like Takuma Sato says: ‘No attack, no chance.’ You’ve got to just go out there and get after it.”
In September, Daly felt like he was in over his head when he made his dirt-track debut in the Deiven2SaveLives BC39 powered by NOS Energy Drink on the temporary track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But at DuQuoin, he felt more comfortable after finishing fourth in the first C-feature. Thomas Meseraull, who’s entered in the Chili Bowl, won the DuQuoin A-main, while Christopher Bell, the winner of the previous two Chili Bowls, led the first 27 laps at DuQuoin.
“At the BC39, I felt like I was getting left behind,” Daly said. “I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. But then when I raced in DuQuoin, I was like, ‘Oh, wait. This is a lot more fun now.’ I started to feel like at least I wasn’t an idiot anymore. It felt a lot better and I felt like I was getting used to it.”
He’ll get more track time at the Chili Bowl, held on a one-fifth-mile track in the Tulsa Expo Center. Daly’s No. 22C midget will be prepped by Jody Rosenboom, who’s also competing in the race, and backed by David Byrd, son of the late Jonathan Byrd, whose team fielded Indy 500 entries for Clauson in 2015 and 2016.
“David is a racer at heart,” Daly said. “He’s an incredible supporter of drivers’ dreams. He was a huge part of Bryan’s career and a huge part of mine. I got my first INDYCAR podium (at Detroit in 2016) wearing his logos and his partners’. It’s a pretty cool deal to be given this shot. … I think he saw so much benefit in the crossover and how much the story blew up and how many people were paying attention. It helps him, too, which is essentially what sponsorship should be.”
After Monday’s practice session, the Chili Bowl kicks off Tuesday and concludes with Saturday’s 55-lap feature race. Daly, who hasn’t seen the Chili Bowl in person, will join accomplished drivers like Bell and Rico Abreu, who won the event in 2015 and 2016.
“It’s such a massive event,” Daly said. “I know how much joy I got racing in my first Indy 500 (in 2013), but I’d been to Indy 500s before it, and I knew what it looked like. This is an event I’ve never seen before and have never been to. I’ve watched it on TV, but I’ve never seen the sheer spectacle of it. To be going there as a competitor but also to be taking it all in as a spectator will be really cool. There’s no better way to show up at the Chili Bowl for the first time than to be actually racing in it.”