By Air Force Airman 1st Class Greg Erwin, 18th Wing
INDIANAPOLIS --On the surface, it may be hard to see how the Air Force and auto racing are similar. Upon closer inspection, however, the themes of teamwork, perseverance and excellence ring true in both worlds.
For race car driver Conor Daly, support from his team – and support from the Air Force – may have helped fuel the most gratifying race of his young career.
The crown jewel of North American auto racing is the Memorial Day weekend Indianapolis 500, and this year’s running was the 102nd event. Daly’s effort in the Indy 500 was fielded by Thom Burns Racing, in the No. 17 car, and sponsorship from the U.S. Air Force Recruiting Service. With the partnership, the car’s livery – or paint scheme – was made up to look like an F-16, mirroring the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.
Before hitting the track, one of the perks of the sponsorship for Daly was getting a chance to visit Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to fly with the Thunderbirds. Throughout the visit, Daly was able to get a better look at what makes the United States Air Force the world’s greatest.
“The big theme I got from my ride with the Thunderbirds was teamwork,” he said. “That’s one thing we also have here in racing. It’s one of those things where everyone has to do their job, everyone has to execute, and when that happens, good results will come.”
All in the Family
Good results seem to be in his genes -- to say racing is in the family would be an understatement. Daly is the son of former Formula 1 driver and current TV analyst Derek Daly. His mother, Beth Boles, is married to the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, J. Douglas Boles.
Being the son of a driver who raced in the premier auto racing series comes with a high set of expectations, but a lack of funding can derail fulfilling those dreams. As with many other sports professionals, this has been Daly’s struggle toward consistently maintaining a ride.
Fortunately, one race Daly has frequently qualified for is the Indianapolis 500. This year’s attempt was the most difficult yet, but sponsorship from the Air Force enabled the team to qualify for the race. Daly’s car owner, Thom Burns, an Indianapolis-based contractor and military veteran, has been trying for years to put together a program to work with the Air Force in the Indy 500.
“We’ve tried to get the Air Force deal for a couple of years, but they had been focused on NASCAR and other sports,” Burns said.
This year, the pieces fell into place for Burns to land the sponsorship. Once in place, the process to acquire bodywork, a chassis and an engine were expedited, thanks to a partnership with full-time team Dale Coyne Racing. With the partnership of Coyne, and sponsorship from the Air Force, the only missing piece was a driver -- insert Conor Daly.
“I’ve had multiple people message me since we announced the deal,” Burns said. “Every single one has said that Conor is the best driver I’ve ever had. … That means a lot.”
Being a one-off effort – or not a full-time team – the team was stretched thin on funding and resources, making the attempt much more difficult at times during the Indianapolis “Month of May” racing. Much like the Air Force however, in times of stress, the team found a way to complete the mission.
The Bump Line
On qualification day, also known as “bump day,” 35 entries were vying for the 33 starting positions. After making multiple changes to the car, a stoppage for rain, and some late qualification session drama, the No. 17 team found themselves on the right side of the bump line when the gun was fired signifying the end of the session.
The dream of being in the top 33 had been met; the team would be competing in the 102nd Indy 500. The elation from the members of the team, Daly’s family and Daly himself showed just how important making this race was to each of them – especially when they were representing the Air Force.
After another week of preparations, the day of the race came and went. Daly was able to keep the car clean and played the best strategy possible for the one-off effort, coming home in 21st place of the 33-car field. Daly and his team were able to enjoy the accomplishment of making the world’s biggest race – while representing the world’s greatest Air Force.
“It’s an honor to represent the U.S. Air Force. It’s an incredible group of people,” Daly said. “I’m a very passionate American, I try to be the most American guy I can be, and to be able to have this red, white and blue car that looks like a Thunderbird and on Memorial Day weekend – it’s a perfect partnership and we’d love to do more in the future with the Air Force.”