BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Zach Veach did everything he needed to do in his Verizon IndyCar Series debut.
The 22-year-old Stockdale, Ohio, native substituted for regular pilot JR Hildebrand in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing at Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First. Hildebrand is recovering from a broken bone in his left hand sustained April 9 in a last-lap incident with Mikhail Aleshin at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Hildebrand has been cleared to drive in the upcoming Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on Saturday at Phoenix Raceway, but Veach is still grateful for the one-off opportunity.
“First off, I’m very thankful to have had this opportunity with Ed Carpenter Racing,” said Veach, who finished the race on the lead lap in 19th place. “Unfortunately, the circumstance wasn’t exactly how I wanted to get my INDYCAR debut with JR’s (injured) hand. We wish him the best to see him back at Phoenix.”
Veach had been announced April 7 to make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut as a third AJ Foyt Racing entry next month in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. His chance last weekend came at Barber Motorsports Park, the undulating 2.3-mile permanent road course that is one of the more physically demanding circuits on the schedule.
“We got thrown into the deep end,” Veach admitted. “You know, it was sink or swim for me. Last time I had driven a race car of any kind was back in October. We trained all winter, but still nothing really fits being in a race car.”
The learning curve was steep for the six-time Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race winner, even though he tested an Indy car with ECR at Sonoma Raceway last September. But Veach adjusted and improved as he became more comfortable, He finished the 90-lap race in the identical place he started: 19th.
“We just came in cautious and pretty far off Friday, but every session we just kept getting quicker and quicker,” said Veach. “Throughout the race, we just kept improving as well.
“Honestly, looking back I think the only thing that could have helped us would have been a test day to get more familiar with the car. But as far as the race goes, we kept our nose clean, learned how to fuel save on the fly, first pit stops. I mean, I’m pretty happy. I think we can only go up from here.
“There’s a lot to learn, but I think one day I’m going to be a frontrunner in INDYCAR.”
Understanding the tall task ahead, the rookie tried to take in as much advice as possible from his peers during the race weekend. Even winning at Barber three years ago in Indy Lights didn’t provide much of a baseline.
“I was talking with James Hinchcliffe before this weekend started,” Veach recounted. “When he answered the phone, he said, ‘Well, first off, bud, congratulations. Secondly, you’re in a very tough situation.’ So we knew how hard it was going to be coming down to here. A night-and-day difference between Indy Lights and INDYCAR and a lot of that is just physical strength.
“The Indy car is an animal and you really just have to trust the downforce. You don’t have to trust so much in the Lights car because it’s always sliding on you. It took a while to build some confidence up in this thing and there is still a lot of confidence to be gained, but I think we’ll find the rest of it come May.”
Veach said he took things in stride until pre-race ceremonies, when he realized the greats he would be going wheel to wheel with in short order.
“I didn’t feel nervous or worried until I got to driver intros,” he said. “On my right was Scott Dixon and beside him was Tony Kanaan, and then Hinchcliffe and (Simon) Pagenaud were talking with me. It was just like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ That’s what brought it to like, ‘Wow, I’m getting ready to do my Indy car race.’ I didn’t start to enjoy until halfway through the race.
“I started to get tired and was hanging on. Then I was like, ‘Dude, you’re driving and Indy car! You’re in an Indy car race right now!’ That gave me the motivation to keep pushing all the way to the end.”
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