Former IndyCar Driver, Derek Daly, Talks Legacy, Family & 30 Years As WISH-TV Motor Sports Analyst
Writer: Josh Brown
Photography provided by Brian Brosmer & Derek Daly
Ever since he was 12 years old, Derek Daly knew he would one day be a professional race car driver. Daly was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland to a middle class, hard-working family. Growing up, his father sold vegetables at the corner grocery store in Dublin, where Derek would help by bagging groceries for customers.
Then one day, Daly’s father took him to his first auto race, a street circuit in the city. As soon as the engines started, the desire to one day strap on his own helmet kicked in.
“I remember that day like HD video in my mind,” Daly says. “The noise, the sound, the colors, the smells, the adrenaline rush. That was the day I said, ‘I’m going to become a professional race car driver.’ It literally changed the path of my life. I was determined to do everything I could to race.”
That day set Daly on a 17-year path to a storied racing career. His journey really took off in the 70s when he won the Irish, British and European championship events. He even competed in the Formula 1 World Championship in 1978 and ranked as high as 10th in the world.
In 1983, Daly reached every driver’s dream — his first start in the Indianapolis 500. He packed his bags and headed to America.
“The more I think about it, the more it amazes me,” Daly says looking back at his career. “Some of it was planned but much of it was circumstances that I fell into by chance. Moving to America was amazing because it was so different. I had just spent five years in Formula 1 and our average speeds were around 150 mph. Then I came to Indy, and they were doing 200 mph, and they were doing it between two concrete walls. It was a completely different world.
“What I remember about my first Indy 500 was qualifying day and walking out down Gasoline Alley and seeing 125,000 people in the crowd just for qualifying day. I had never seen that many people anywhere. That was when I realized, this is a different level.”
Still, Daly’s journey didn’t come without its own pit stops and pitfalls. In 1984, he hit the wall at Michigan International Speedway going 212 mph. The impact broke just about every bone in his body and set Daly down a road of 14 surgeries and three years of therapy.
“We all have accidents,” Daly says. “Drivers are risk takers. We are paid to take risks. As much as possible, we like to think they are intelligent risks, though. I had never been hurt up to that point and anytime, doing anything. I remember that race clearly. My lap time the lap before the crash was 219 mph. I had never gone that fast before. The race was delayed because of rain. As I was going down the back straightaway, I could see droplets begin to gather on the windshield. Turn three had a big bump in it where you would correct and go. That time, when it bumped I tried to correct and didn’t catch it.
“The last thing I remember is pulling my legs in the cockpit back as far as I could. Then my life stopped, I didn’t remember anything else. The next six seconds of destruction are gone from my mind. It really changed everything about my life.”
The next year was full of struggles. After the surgeries and making it back home, Daly became addicted to pain medication. After being prescribed valium, he knew he was hooked and told his doctor he was done taking medication.
“It was hard but over the course of three weeks, after I made that decision, the good times took over the bad times,” Daly recalls.
Despite all of that, Daly was able to later return full time to racing less than a year later and, in many ways, he credits his father for that decision.
“When I was 12 my dad told me two things after I said I wanted to become a professional driver: ‘I’ll help you all I can as long as it’s not financial.’ Then he said, ‘Always remember, you’ll be completely responsible for the legacy that you are going to leave in this sport.’ I never understood that until the accident,” Daly says. “It was then that I realized that isn’t how I wanted to leave the sport. I wanted to leave on my own terms.”
The disastrous wreck brought other blessings in disguise for Daly, though. Before he got back in a car, while he was rehabbing and recuperating from the crash, he was interviewed by ESPN. That interview set Daly down a career path he had never thought of — broadcasting. In 1985, Daly started a 10-year partnership with ESPN as a color analyst and appeared on NBC, Fox, Speed Channel and more.
In 1988, Daly started on as a motorsports analyst with WISH-TV. Thirty years later, he is still enjoying a successful broadcast career with the Indianapolis TV station.
“I had never planned on a broadcasting career,” Daly says. “Never even considered it until ESPN asked me to do it. I just jumped in and started talking about racing. The Irish are good storytellers. So I thought, that’s what I’ll do — tell stories. People found it engaging.
“It is amazing that it has gone on this long with WISH-TV,” Daly adds. “I really enjoy it. Living here in Indianapolis, I was going to spend time at the track every year anyway. Still to this day, I love to be at the track and do commentary.”
Today, Daly is also an accomplished writer and professional speaker. His latest book, “A Champion’s Path: Race Team Tactics For Business Be Extraordinary” was released last year. Racing has become a bit of a family affair for the Dalys, too. All three of Daly’s boys raced karts as kids. Derek’s son Conor followed in his father’s footsteps and continues to race in IndyCar today. His youngest son, Christian, has found his own path on the water as a Pro Watercross jetski racer.
After living in Noblesville for many years, Derek now calls Carmel home.
“I think I am officially a Hoosier now,” Daly says. “Even though I’m from Ireland, I’ve lived in Noblesville and Carmel for a bigger portion of my life. I moved to Carmel two and a half years ago now. The location is great. I always liked the old, Irish lodge style of homes, which is where I’m at now.”
Daly’s legacy speaks for itself. But when he looks back on his career overall, he hopes to leave a legacy to his family and friends that illustrates hard work and determination in all circumstances.
“It is nice to get awards. An award is a reward for things you might have done,” Daly says. “When you are recognized, it is nice, but no matter what house you have, someone has a bigger one. No matter what you have, someone has more. The measurement tool should be with you personally. Did you cause yourself to achieve something, and did you put the effort in? I am an effort-driven type of guy. Part of my legacy, I hope, I might leave is that I was adaptable no matter what happened and I was determined to do things.”