Put Conor Daly in front of an audience, and the affable NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver usually becomes the center of attention. His quick wit and likable personality have made him a fan and media favorite.
But during a video conference Thursday, Daly was fading into the background. The questions were being directed at someone new to INDYCAR, the man who will serve as Daly’s engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing in the 104th Indianapolis 500.
It was Cole Pearn, the former NASCAR Cup Series crew chief who played such a big role in Martin Truex Jr’s success in stock car racing. With Pearn calling the shots and Truex behind the steering wheel, this combination was involved in the final battle for the Cup championship in four of the last five years.
The highlight was the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series title with Furniture Row Racing.
After last season, Pearn climbed down from the pit box and walked away from the team. The independent thinker from Canada was looking for new challenges.
One of those will come in the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, scheduled for Aug. 23 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The Indy 500 is a huge deal, so definitely a bucket list item, for sure,” Pearn said. “To get a chance to do it with a great driver and a great team, as well, a team I kind of felt comfortable with, was kind of a perfect opportunity.
“I definitely didn't want to go back racing full time, so to get a chance to do one race, have it be in a competitive situation, is pretty ideal. It all worked out.”
Because of this year’s Indianapolis 500 was rescheduled from May 24 to Aug. 23 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECR’s original engineer for Daly’s entry is unable to participate.
Pete Craik, the lead engineer on owner/driver Ed Carpenter’s No. 20 Chevrolet who works with Daly on the street and road courses, worked with Pearn during the NASCAR championship season in 2017.
“He called and asked, ‘Would you want to do this?’ Pearn said of Craik. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then we talked to the higher powers, I guess, went from there. It was pretty simple from that standpoint, really.”
Pearn is the new man on pit lane but has already claimed one of racing’s top prizes with a NASCAR Cup Series championship. He hopes to add an Indy 500 victory to that collection.
His arrival on the team has been big news, even to the driver who is often the center of the conversation.
“I got texts from so many people, messages, as if we had hired the alpha of all racing,” Daly said of Pearn. “It's as if Mario Andretti has come to our team and blessed us with his experience and career, some alpha wizard of engineering. That's great. It's going to be a lot of fun to see what happens.
“We're going to get along, I can tell already. That's the best part.”
Pearn arrived at the ECR shop two days ago and has worked ever since on Daly’s No. 47 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet. It strengthens one of the fastest teams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Carpenter is a three-time Indy 500 pole winner.
Practice for the 104th Indianapolis 500 begins Wednesday, Aug. 12, and Pearn is learning all he can about the new form of racing machine in INDYCAR.
“Honestly, a lot of things are super-similar,” Pearn said. “The values that you're looking at are way different, with way more downforce, a lot lighter car, all those things. You are still looking for the same things in terms of handling and all those types of metrics you kind of study are the same. It's just the values are slightly different.
“I have had some time to at least prep on that side of things, get more comfortable with it all.”
Pearn has no plans on moving to INDYCAR full time but admitted that his time away from competition left a void. He stepped away from full-time NASCAR competition after last season and returned to Canada with his wife, Carrie, and their two young children.
The couple owns and operates Golden Alpine Holidays, which includes four backcountry lodges in British Columbia.
“I grew up a big fan of INDYCAR,” Pearn said. “Over time, it grew to meet and know a lot of people that were in the sport. I definitely wanted to stay paying attention to it. It's not like going into something totally foreign. You at least know the players; you know what's going on from that standpoint. This season, obviously a little bit weird, but I've been able to watch it in more detail, watch races a lot closer than what I've done in the past.”
For the next two weeks, Pearn hopes to regain that competitive desire in INDYCAR after a successful career in NASCAR.
“Having a chance to line up your competitors and do better than them is definitely the goal,” Pearn said. “It will be a fully different experience. But racing is still racing, throw a green and checkered.
“I’m looking forward to getting to that side of it and getting into the action.”