By Zach Dunkin
Conor Daly was 15 years old when doctors told him he had Type 1 diabetes. Most kids that age would have been devastated. Hearing that they’d need to change their eating habits and physical activities – much less injecting themselves with needles – often triggers reactions of shock, denial, anger, sadness, fear and guilt. But nothing was going to stop this high schooler from following his dream of becoming a racecar driver like his dad.
Today, the son of veteran driver Derek Daly finds himself living that dream as he prepares for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for practice May 16, followed by qualifications May 21-22 and the race May 29.
“Like the AC/DC song goes, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n roll,’ ” said the 24-year-old Daly, who drives Dale Coyne’s No. 18 Honda-powered Indy Car. “And it was a long way to get to where I am now. But this is where I wanted to be – a racer driver.”
Daly admits he knew very little about the disease sometimes called “juvenile diabetes.” Although he was showing the signs of constant thirst and frequent urination, he didn’t know his pancreas wasn’t producing enough insulin, causing dangerously high blood sugar levels.
“But I’m a rules follower and after they told me what I had to do, I said, ‘Okay, that’s easy enough. I can do that,’” Daly said.
And he definitely wasn’t going to let it slow him down. Daly already had shown signs of talent as a racer. Racing go-karts since the age of 10, he’d won several events, including the World Karting Association Grand Nationals in 2006. He advanced to auto racing the following year, winning three Skip Barber regional races.
“After I was diagnosed, I was in the hospital for two days and the next weekend I was racing again,” Daly said. “It was never in my thought process to quit racing, and it’s never been a problem. All it takes is precaution and preparation.”
On race days, Daly follows a dedicated regiment of eating the correct diet at proper times and taking his insulin shots. He wears a glucose monitoring system, and there is also one his racecar.
“Every race I have done so far this year, my blood sugar hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “There is so much adrenaline that it overrules every other problem your body has. It just takes control.”
Daly grew up in Noblesville, living with his father Derek, a 17-year racing veteran who competed in seven Indy 500s, and mother, Beth, a champion jet skier, a 1978 500 Festival Princess and president and owner of Blackburn Sports Marketing. When they divorced after 13 years, Beth moved to Zionsville (she is now married to Speedway president Doug Boles) and their son was “back and forth” between the two households.
Daly now lives in Zionsville in the home of fellow driver and good friend James Hinchcliffe.
After graduating from Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis, Daly built a strong reputation as a rising star in American and European road racing.
Two years ago, he drove in his first Indy 500 for A.J Foyt’s team and finished 22nd, despite being slowed by two fires during pit stops. He qualified 20th last year for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports but was forced out on the second parade lap because of a fire caused by an overheated exhaust system. A week later, subbing for Hinchcliffe who had survived a near-fatal injury in practice at Indy, he earned his best finish at the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, leading 12 laps and finishing sixth.
This year, Daly has finished 13th, 16th, and 20th.
“We’re a small team and we’re sort of the underdogs,” Daly said. “It’s the deepest field in years with every single driver capable of winning. That’s the cool thing about Indy Car – there’s still a notion that anybody has a chance. But you have to be perfect every time out.
“You want to finish all of the laps and gain the experience, but you can’t be conservative. We’re out there giving it 110 percent every time. It’s a constant, all-out full attack.”
About Conor Daly
Favorite music: Electronic dance, club and house music. “Stuff that’s at this year’s Snake Pit concert like Skrillex and Zeds Dead.”
Favorite movie: “Any of the ‘Fast & Furious’ films.”
Favorite local dining spot: “I’m on the road so much I don’t really go into town to eat.”
Celebrity friend: Actor Matt LeBlanc. “I met him through the Formula 1 community. Good dude.”
Hobbies: “I like music a lot and go to a few concerts but my life is mostly racing.”
Status: Single. “I’m too busy racing.”
Ovals or road courses: “I’m a road racer at heart but I’m learning a lot about racing on ovals.”
Fun fact No. 1: After Conor subbed for the injured James Hinchcliffe in last year’s race at Detroit, Hinchcliffe exchanged the helmet he was wearing when he crashed last year at Indy for the one Conor wore in the Detroit race.
Fun fact No. 2: Conor’s face is one of several on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s “T1D Looks like Me” billboard on Times Square in New York City.