Daly and his Wysard team at the 1983 Indy 500. Image by IndyCar
I was driving into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1983 when Derek Daly was being interviewed by Larry Henry on WIBC and uttered the now-infamous “n….. in a woodpile,” description of himself as he assessed the makeup of his Wysard racing team.
Of course it was shocking to hear on the biggest radio station in town, but even though I’d only met Daly a couple weeks earlier, I also knew from his delivery that he had no concept of what he’d just said. I found him in Gasoline Alley and told him he could not use that word in any public setting in this country. He was both apologetic and puzzled, because it had been a common phrase in his native Ireland, as well as in Britain where he’d been housed in Formula 1.
He immediately felt terrible, but clearly it was a cultural misunderstanding rather than anything spoken with malice, and that word was instantly deleted from his vocabulary.
“I haven’t said that word in 35 years,” said Daly on Sunday night.
But, as you probably know by now, this faux pas became a firestorm over the past few days because of an Indianapolis television station, a pharmaceutical giant and some sorry SOBs trying to make headlines for being righteous all piling on the 65-year-old Irishman who’s lived in Indianapolis for four decades.
We went to lunch last Wednesday, and six hours later Daly’s world had turned upside down because of a report of something he supposedly said that was relayed by somebody else in front of another individual who was offended by it, and it cost Bob Lamey his job with the Indianapolis Colts. And somehow, it also ended Derek’s 30-year association with WISH-TV Channel 8.
I know a little bit about a kangaroo court from my Gannett termination in 2001 at the Indianapolis Star, and Double D got charged, pronounced guilty and sentenced without anything resembling due process.
Most importantly, his reputation was savaged, and for an ex-racer who makes his living on public speaking, writing books and doing television work, it could be devastating to his career.
I worked with Derek at Channel 8 during May from 1989-94. We’ve been friends since ’83, and he’s as likeable and inoffensive as anyone I know in racing. I’ve never heard him use the N word, or anything else remotely racist, because he’s just not wired like that.
But don’t take my word. Listen to the first black man to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
“Derek has been my friend for 41 years since I was racing in England, and we’ve been close friends ever since,” said Willy T. Ribbs. “He was at my wedding a week ago. I’ve never been friends with racists. He’s a great father, great human being and a great friend. I will defend him to the end.”
And if Derek’s character assassination wasn’t enough, Eli Lilly tripped over its moral compass on the way to the bank and yanked its sponsorship of Conor Daly last weekend for the NASCAR Xfinity race at Road America. Yeah, go get ‘em Lilly’s, you showed everybody how tough you are, and that you’re not going to tolerate the insensitivity of a man who wouldn’t become Conor’s father for another eight years at the time of the interview in question.
I hope Daly sues Channel 8 and Lilly’s stock takes a hit because this is the insanity of our new pastime: political correctness at all costs with no reasoning.
Forget someone’s body of work or character or track record: if something surfaces from 35 years ago, regardless of the circumstances and uncertainly surrounding it, that a couple people construe as damming, then it’s grounds for an ethical stance to make yourselves look superior. Better yet, it’s a chance to get your exclusive out there and beat the other stations in town.
If there’s not a statue of limitations on this kind of skullduggery, then at least give us a little common sense, because this is a crock with a capital C. And, at the least, Double D deserves the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned that.