INDIANAPOLIS – His cellular phone wouldn’t stop buzzing as Andretti Autosport teammates Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti kept pestering Conor Daly.
The FaceTime teasing was to be expected from his buddies after Daly turned the fastest overall practice lap of the week at 231.704 mph on “Fast Friday” for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
What made the moment even more surreal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as an excited Daly tried to ignore that buzzing phone and answer questions from reporters, was that he was sitting between racing legends Gil de Ferran and Fernando Alonso.
As a young race fan, Daly took pictures with both — smiling with de Ferran when the Brazilian won the Indy 500 in 2003, then getting a snapshot with two-time Formula 1 Alonso during the United States Grand Prix weekend in 2005 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
All these years later, preparing for his first race of the NTT IndyCar Series season after an agonizingly long wait, that former wide-eyed, picture-seeking kid might have needed to pinch himself to believe this day. Daly will try to win the effort in the first day of Crown Royal Armed Services Qualifying weekend on Saturday in his No. 25 United States Air Force Honda, an Andretti Autosport car he’s convinced gives him the best chance to win this race after five humbling starts.
“I mean, honestly, I almost shed a little tear in my helmet at the end there just because my dad and my mom were there, and I love this place,” Daly said. “Heck, I took pictures with Gil when he won when I was an infant it felt like – a very small boy, little pudgy, pre-diabetes, all that stuff. And I took picture with (Alonso) here, too. Geez, wow!”
This was a lot to digest for the 27-year-old driver from Noblesville, Indiana, the son of former Indy car and F1 racer, who last raced full time in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2017. His best result in 43 series starts was a second at Detroit in 2016 for Dale Coyne Racing.
As much as he’s grown up dreaming of Indy 500 glory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – his stepfather is Doug Boles, president of the track – Daly has endured his share of humbling moments in this race. His best finish in five Indianapolis 500 starts was 21st last year with Dale Coyne/Thom Burns Racing. In 2015 with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, his engine failed on the pace laps and he didn’t even get to take the green flag.
But now, after all that, he’s with an Andretti Autosport team that has won three of the past five Indy 500s. It’s difficult to choose words with enough depth in meaning to describe how much this moment, this opportunity means to Daly.
“I just love it here, and I've always worked so hard to try and have the best chance that we've had with what I've been driving,” he said. “Definitely have made mistakes here, definitely have had a lot of bad luck here. But I still love it. I love driving every lap, and this week has gone a lot better, I think, than we've shown on the timesheets. And so today was definitely a reward for the guys, really. I think they work so hard – I've done more laps in these last few days than I think I've ever done on practice days, just getting ready.”
Daly has completed 344 practice laps in four sessions, most of any driver. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot has turned 327.
“That helps,” Daly said. “Every lap here helps. We’re going to keep at it.”
Entering qualifying weekend, it’s worth noting that Daly’s fastest lap on the no-tow list ranked 22nd, but he’s convinced that lap doesn’t indicate his car’s strength.
“I don’t think our no-tow time has been a fair judgment of what we can do,” Daly said.
As track temperatures cooled in the final minutes of happy hour, drivers knew they could turn some of the fastest laps. Andretti had spent much of the day in the top spot until Daly’s late push.
After knocking Andretti down a peg on that speed chart, Daly tried to turn the FaceTime tables on his teammate in the post-practice news conference by handing his cellphone to an amused Alonso, who was happy to play along in showing Andretti’s face to reporters and asking if he had anything to say about finishing second in practice.
“I’ve got to go, guys,” Andretti said.
As soon as the news conference ended, Daly looked at his phone again.
“They’ve FaceTimed me 27 times in the last few minutes,” he said of Andretti and Rossi. “I think they just like to be annoying.”
Minutes earlier, he learned his car would be the first out in Saturday qualifying.
“I don’t know. Is that good?” Daly asked.
De Ferran nodded with what appeared to be a playful smile, as if to suggest it’s not so good. But Daly was too excited to pay that playful facial expression any mind.
“All right, I’ll take it,” Daly said.
He thought back to how his mother cried on Dec. 18 when the Andretti Autosport deal was finalized. Daly has had too much time to think about what this May could mean to his career.
“Everyone keeps telling me, all you have to do is win Indy and everything is easy from then on,” he said.
“Honestly, I've gone into this thinking, yeah, there is no other result other than winning. I think prize-money-wise, I could maybe do more races if we finish in the top three, maybe, but that's my only goal is I want to be here more. I want to do more races for this team. I want to be part of this environment for a long time. That's what we said going into this, and that's what we're going to continue to try and do.”
First-day qualifying runs from 11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. ET Saturday. INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold carries the first six hours of coverage before NBCSN takes over from 5-6 p.m. The fastest 30 drivers at the end of the day secure a spot in the May 26 race.
Qualifying on Sunday features the Last Row Shootout to fill the last three spots in the 33-car field, followed by the Fast Nine Shootout to decide the pole sitter and order of the first three rows. NBC has live coverage from noon-3 p.m., followed by a practice for the qualified cars that airs from 3-6 p.m. on NBCSN.