Proud to be an American: Conor Daly after his Barcelona victory (Photo Credit: Daniel Kalisz/GP3 Media Service)

Proud to be an American: Conor Daly after his Barcelona victory (Photo Credit: Daniel Kalisz/GP3 Media Service)

Until Alex Rossi's 25 laps for Caterham in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, the last man to represent America during a Grand Prix weekend had been Scott Speed in 2007.

The man before him?

Michael Andretti as long ago as 1993.

But nowadays things have changed.  America's indifference to Formula 1 is showing signs of changing, particularly now that the US Grand Prix is returning to the calendar this year, and a plethora of home-grown youngsters have crossed the pond and are on the fringes of the sport's most elite formula.  Over the next two weeks, The Checkered Flag will be looking at two men most likely to join Rossi in the F1 ranks in the coming years, starting this week with second-generation racer Conor Daly.

Indiana native Daly naturally grew up watching the Indianapolis 500, and started his career on US open wheel scene, winning the Skip Barber series in 2008 and setting a record-breaking 7 wins en route to the Star Mazda title in 2010.  Stepping up for a part-season in Indy Lights in 2011, Daly won at Long Beach and was leading the championship after three races.

It was awesome, and the way we did it too was great,” Daly remembers. “I missed the Friday practise because I was doing GP3 testing, so it was just a great weekend, a lot of fun and I just thoroughly enjoyed it.”

But for Conor, conquering Europe and following in the wheel-tracks of his father Derek, who peaked with two fourth place finishes driving for Tyrell in 1980, was the main goal, and he made the tough decision to move toEuropefor 2011.

It was one of those things that it was difficult to leave because I was leading the [Indy Lights] championship after the first three races,” Daly says. “But Europe is the goal, F1 is where I want to be, so you've got to be committed over here and do the racing over here.”

Living in England after growing up Stateside proved a culture shock for the now-20 year old, but one that was certainly eased by the company of his father, an Irishman.

“It's been a great benefit to have him, he's a great asset and I learn a lot from him everyday,” Conor says of his father. “He knows what it takes to get to the top and as a manager he's done quite a good job.

It's alright… I prefer America for sure, but you have to make the best of it. You've got to be committed over here.

Derek Daly, Conor Daly (Photo Credit: Daniel Kalisz/GP3 Media Service)

Conor on his father, Derek: “It's been a great benefit to have him, he's a great asset."

2011 was a difficult first season in Europe for Daly, with no points finishes until the series visited the Nurburgring in July for the fifth round of the season, where he finished sixth.  A fifth at Spa was a step in the right direction, and Conor was again in the points at Monza, but his chance at victory in the reversed grid race was snatched from him when he was rear-ended by Valterri Bottas on the opening lap.

Switching to the double-champion team Lotus ART for 2012, Daly finally has the team around him to be a consistent threat, and rates his team-mates, Daniel Abt and Aaro Vainio, as the among the strongest in the series.

Both my team-mates Daniel and Aaro are really good drivers: I mean seriously quick guys. The team benefits from that as all of us can get each others data, and we can look at it to see how we can improve,” Daly says. “It's really nice to have because last year was a big struggle for me with team-mates. One of our cars had a different driver each week and it was very difficult to get good data to learn from.

With these guys, we qualified second, third and sixth or something at Barcelona so it's great to have good team-mates.  I think we're going to be challenging each other quite a lot for the rest of the year.”

After taking his first win at Barcelona earlier this year, Daly has a renewed sense of confidence and is relishing taking the fight to MW Arden driver Mitch Evans from New Zealand, who is Mark Webber's protégé.

You know part of me thinks 'well surely we can't win three in a row' but that's the plan, that's the goal, we've got to go to win the championship. We've got a lot of racing to go and I want to be there at the end of the championship.  But who knows? It's a long season and there is a lot of chaos that can happen in GP3. I think Mitch will be the main competition, but the plan is to beat him: I think I can do it, and the team is good enough to do it.”

“It's going to be about scoring points consistently in race 1 because that's where more points come, but if we can get the race 2 victories we'll go for it. It'll be tough but it'll be a good year.”

Daly lights up when his Spanish victory is mentioned.  He knows just how significant it is for an American driver to do well in Europe after so many failures for his counterparts.

It's really been cool to have a lot of people in America continue to follow it even though I'm over here,” Conor grins. “I know my mom has been at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with all the Indy 500 stuff and apparently I've been all over the TV boards there and everyone's been talking about it, so it's been really cool. I mean, most of my friends are driving in the 500 so they've been talking about it as well.

I've been really appreciative of all the support I've got from everyone back home. It's done a lot for me and it's been really, really cool.

I really want to get to F1: that's the main goal.  Growing up in Indy, especially during the Month of May (for the Indianapolis 500), I just want to be there, but I'm sure I will have a chance to do it eventually, and after winning in Barcelona it kind of solidified the fact that I can do it over here as well. That feeling of winning in Europe was really cool and I want to keep that going.

It was difficult but it was so rewarding because after last year was very difficult but I knew by the end of the year we were in a position where we could win, we just got taken out in the last race. But it just proved to Europe, proved to myself, that I can actually do it, so it's pretty cool.”

Formula 1 knows that having an American driver in their team will be a huge commercial asset to them, as can be seen by Caterham's support of Rossi.  After victory in Barcelona, Daly got a call from Force India, renowned for giving youngsters like Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi a chance to shine on grand prix weekends, and performed straight-line testing duties at a sunny Kemble Airfield. Despite not tackling any corners, it was an experience Daly says he will never forget.

“To say you've driven a Formula 1 car is something not a lot of people can say. I hope it's just the beginning. For me it was just a great experience with the team, a great experience just to get in the car and learn the systems. The goal for me is to do the young driver test with someone so hopefully we can work towards that point.

Who knows what will happen over the next few weeks and months?  It's great to have Force India give us a call and say 'hey we'd like you to do this.' It's very evident that people are pushing their young drivers and [Force India] like to be the team that drafts the young drivers in. Formula 1 knows they need an American, so it's good to be an American at this time, and all I've got to do is keep getting goods results and hopefully win the [GP3] championship. That would be really nice!”

With F1's return to the States this year at the newly constructed Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Daly knows that now is as good a time as ever to be an American.

It's going to be great to have another race in the USA, its going to be a blot of fun,” Daly says. “It's big for the sport and overall, we need American drivers to make it last, so hopefully me and Rossi can do that, it would be great to have two Americans rather than one!

“It's great to see Americans over here, the more Americans we can have over here the better. It's really cool to have Rossi doing FP1 in Barcelona and I hope to follow in his footsteps and get to F1.”

Make sure to check back next week to discover more about Californian rising star, Formula 3 driver Michael Lewis.