After many hurdles and setbacks, Veach ready for full-time shot

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Zach Veach could have been forgiven if he’d asked his crew to forego the lunchtime changes planned for his Honda and work right through the afternoon during a recent test at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.

At 23, the youthful-looking old soul has been a fixture around INDYCAR and ladder series paddocks for nearly a decade, so ubiquitous that it seems unfathomable that the one-time child prodigy has made just two starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. That he was approaching, finally, his first commitment of a full season with Andretti Autosport would seemingly have driven him, after the setbacks and the injuries and the demoralizing slog for sponsorship, toward an impatience to finally just get on with it.

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But if there was anxiety, Veach had learned to at least mask it, if not channel it into finally making something of this first chance, enabled when defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato left for Rahal Letterman Lanigan and team owner Michael Andretti promoted his long-time developmental prospect.

Honestly, Veach wasn’t sure how long he could maintain the façade.

“For some reason, I’ve been very blessed to stay very calm in these couple first tests, but each weekend it gets a little more real,” admitted Veach, who’ll be on track with other rookies today at ISM Raceway, ahead of the series-wide open test Friday and Saturday for all 23 cars. “The first test luckily, it was only about six cars down here (at Sebring), so it was quiet. Now we have 13 cars. When we go to Phoenix, the entire field is there and the media day, so it’s all building now. It’s all starting to feel like, yeah, I’m getting ready to be an Indy car driver.”

But this was no certainty. Veach, who enjoyed a mainstream blip as a pre-teen when he was named to CNN’s 2010 list of “Intriguing People to Meet” and debuted his book “99 Things Teens Wish They Knew Before Turning 16” on NBC’s “Today” show in 2011, competed in all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy development pipeline beginning in 2010. He won three races and finished third in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points in 2014 for Andretti and won three more in finishing fourth for Belardi Auto Racing in 2016.

Veach made his only Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2017 by replacing the injured JR Hildebrand for Ed Carpenter Racing – starting and finishing 19th at Barber Motorsports Park – and placing 26th after qualifying 32nd in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil for AJ Foyt Racing. His full-time opportunity – finally – begins now with Andretti Autosport.

“I have high hopes for him. I think he’s got a fantastic program with (sponsor) Group One Thousand One. He doesn’t have to do it all at once. He has three years to work on it. I see Zach as a guy that’s going to start here,” Andretti said, marking segments with his hands, “and he’s going to be here and be here. By next year I expect him to compete for top-fives.”

Veach said he had no contingency plan for this season and beyond before Andretti offered him a three-year contract. It soothed the most recent and final instance in which he was forced to come to terms with the reality that his desire and patience didn’t necessarily mean he would get what he wanted.

“I honestly think, there’s probably three solid points in my career where I was like, ‘You know what? It’s over’ And that’s tough,” Veach said. “I was lucky to have kind of that inner drive that even though I got to those dark sides, I was like, ‘Man, you’ve just got to keep going, keep taking the blows.’

“When I broke my hand in 2015, went without a ride for a year, that was the worst. Because you disappear for a year in Indy Lights and it’s extremely hard to come back. At that point, INDYCAR teams are even writing you off.”

Without a sponsor, Veach landed a career-saving ride in Indy Lights with Belardi for 2016, which helped him secure an Indy car test with Ed Carpenter Racing at the end of the season. Carpenter then tabbed Veach to spell Hildebrand, which Veach said “kind of led to me having my sponsor for the Indy 500, and my Indy 500 sponsor is what made it possible to be with Andretti for three years.”

Even the Indianapolis 500 experience was rife with anxiety for Veach, however.

“We really struggled with the situation we were thrown in,” he admitted of the Indy 500 ride with Foyt, with sponsorship from the Indy Women in Tech LPGA golf tournament held in September 2017 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Brickyard Crossing Golf Course.

“It was a last-minute deal. I had good people on my car, but the budget really wasn’t there to have the proper things. You get one show. You get one time to kind of make your mark on this series, for people to keep inviting you back, and I was worried my first mark wasn’t good enough because it wasn’t something I was proud of, for sure.”

Veach, a native of Stockdale, Ohio, is proud of his persistence, his struggle and eager for what might come next.

“No way could I have predicted how it would turn out when I was 12,” said Veach, the first to compete at every MRTI level and the Verizon IndyCar Series with the same organization. “People always joke, ‘Would you like to go back to when you were 12 knowing what you know now and doing it all over again?’

“Not at all. So much happens to chance to get here at the right time with the right team. I couldn’t have planned it any better.”

Joining Veach in the rookie oval test from 3-7 p.m. ET today at ISM Raceway are Pietro Fittipaldi for Dale Coyne Racing, Matheus Leist with AJ Foyt Racing, Kyle Kaiser for Juncos Racing and Robert Wickens with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves, while not a series rookie, will receive minimal track time since he has never raced on the oval outside Phoenix.

Sessions for all cars on Friday and Saturday run from 3-6 and 8-11 p.m. ET, and are available to view on a live stream at racecontrol.indycar.com. ISM Raceway is open free to the public on Saturday, with a driver autograph session included from 6:45-7:30 p.m. ET.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC). The series returns to ISM Raceway for the Phoenix Grand Prix under the lights on April 7 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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