The tidal wave of praise that has swept through the IndyCar paddock for rookie Robert Wickens has been well deserved, but has also unfairly drowned the efforts of Zach Veach, who lies second to him in the RoY standings.
I used to have doubts about Zach Veach’s potential. Charming and open though he was even in his teens, his form in junior formulas would burn strong two or three times a season and then flicker. Whether it was Sage Karam or Carlos Munoz or Felix Rosenqvist, he seemed always to be paired with a driver who was faster on a much more consistent basis.
The problem was that, by his own confession, Veach has never been one of those drivers to put his foot to the floor and rely on blind faith; he needs the confidence that only comes from experience. As a teenager, in terms of height and facial features, he wasn’t a million miles away from Stewie Griffin in Family Guy, but there were times when it would have served him well to possess Stewie’s arrogant self-belief.
Yet for the past four or five years, Veach’s more cautious approach has helped him. The 23-year-old from Stockdale, OH has a reputation for not crashing cars – and he’s also now recognized as a talent worthy of an IndyCar seat.
What turned Veach’s reputation around in that regard was his 2014 Indy Lights season at Andretti Autosport, where he was joined by Matthew Brabham, a rising star whose reputation was at its zenith thanks to 13 wins from 16 Pro Mazda races. So while Matty initially struggled to adapt to the oddball handling characteristics of the previous-gen Indy Lights cars, Zach v2.0 felt able to exploit his talent a little more, took three wins and four poles and beat Brabham to third in the points race.
With no money available to race the new-for-2015 Indy Lights Dallara IL15 Mazda, Veach effectively took a sabbatical, but then returned in ’16, this time with Belardi Auto Racing. Although Euro F3 champion and occasional teammate Felix Rosenqvist generally had the upper hand as they learned the car together, Veach admitted he learned a lot from the Swede, and in the second half of the season put that knowledge and his own experience to good use. Winning at Road America, Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca, Veach took fourth in the points race.
The doors to the IndyCar paddock weren’t exactly flung open for him in 2017, but as a last-minute sub for injured JR Hildebrand in Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber, and as a third driver for AJ Foyt Racing in the Indy 500, Veach performed adequately for a rookie.
Then came the news last August that from 2018, insurance company Group One Thousand One was going to back Veach in an Andretti Autosport IndyCar, in a multi-year agreement.
Thus far his high point results-wise has been fourth place at Long Beach, but in reality, qualifying in the top 10 in Detroit was even more impressive. Also on display have been Veach’s traditional characteristics – a softly-softly build-up to speed and a paucity of errors. Knowing he has a long-term deal in place has played nicely into the hands of a driver who takes the smart approach to finding the limits of himself and his car.
“Yeah, that deal is a nice reassurance to have,” Veach tells Motorsport.com. “I mean, I do wish I was quicker about learning the limits, but I’ve always been so methodical about progression. I’ve always been about taking inches instead of feet. The good thing is that at least when I reach the point of fulfilling my potential, I do feel I understand what got me there.
“So one of my goals was to be running at the end of every race and we’ve done that so far. And the last two race weekends have given us our best moments, too. In Detroit, I qualified seventh in the wet for the second race, and our race was OK too. My ability to go quick and save fuel was a lot better than it has been in the past, so that’s satisfying.
“And then I don’t know if something just switched for me subconsciously at Texas, but it suddenly felt like I was back in an Indy Lights car – I felt I had the confidence to run at the front. Unfortunately I got a little carried away! When I pitted from third, we had a slow stop and I came out ninth or tenth, so then I pushed really hard for six laps trying to get around Marco [Andretti, teammate]. I blistered the right-front tire so bad that I lost all grip going through Turn 2, ran high and hit the right-rear and bent the toe-link on the SAFER barrier. So I had to come in and lost 10 laps.”
That he left his first significant error until the ninth race of the season is something that will have gone down well with race engineer Garrett Mothersead, who last year engineered Indy 500 race winner Takuma Sato. Switching from veteran to a rookie has brought no complaints from Mothersead – he’s been patient and encourages the same quality in his hungry new driver.
“I so want to do a good job for Garrett,” says Veach. “He’s given me a product to run up front and when you feel like you’re the guy who’s holding back progress through being a rookie, then you want to give him the world because that’s what he does for you.
“But thinking like that is what hurt us in Texas. If you drive over your head trying to pass for fifth or sixth with 40 laps to go then you can put the thing in the wall. I’d far rather be ninth or 10th and get those laps to learn what you have to do as a race progresses.
“So at Texas I was mad at myself because someone with more experience would have thought, ‘OK, the car is good enough to run at the front, I’m in this bad situation because of a slow stop, but I just need to wait for these guys ahead to lose pace or pit and I’ll make my hay in the third or fourth stint.’ Instead, I tried to rush things. That was my first real ‘let the rookie take the reins’ moment of the season, and I wish we had a re-do. But those moments are the ones you learn most from, right?”
While he was fed up with himself on that occasion, Veach’s natural humility has enabled him to bond with Mothersead and absorb knowledge – exactly the right approach from a rookie. For now, he’s content to mainly provide feedback rather than call for alterations to such as ride-height and springs.
“Garrett has won a lot more races in IndyCar than I have,” says Veach, “so at the moment I just tell him how the car feels in each corner. If I think maybe the car needs more toe-in or more front wing, something like that, I might say to him, ‘Do you think this could help?’ He listens to me and he may say, ‘Sure, let’s try that.’ I want to give him as comprehensive feedback as I can. But there are other other times, still, when I come in and say, ‘I have no idea what we need. Please just fix it!’ And that’s why it’s good to have three experienced teammates.”
Yes, especially in a season in which IndyCar has had a technical makeover with spec aerokit, the benefit of multi-car teams cannot be emphasized enough. For a rookie, it’s ideal to be paired with series veterans. Perhaps more surprising is that, as Andretti Autosport team manager Rob Edwards told us a couple weeks ago, Veach is making his own contributions and teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi are listening. It’s a scenario that Veach finds flattering.
“At first, as a rookie, giving your opinion to a team that has so much knowledge can get you some funny looks!” he chuckles. “But at this point of the season, it’s cool that I can run a setup change and Alex or Ryan will ask me about it, and they may make a decision based on my feedback.
“In debriefs after each practice, we take it in turn and I go first because I’m the lowest number, #26, [Rossi is #27, Hunter-Reay is #28 and Andretti #98] and I’ll explain what I’m feeling. It really gives you confidence to hear one of the others say, ‘Yeah, it’s exactly what Zach was saying – I’m having a problem getting the power down here or getting the fronts to hook up here…’
“I remember at Phoenix – I think it was in the preseason test, or maybe in practice for the race – I kinda felt scared at the way the car was handling. I was wondering if it was just me being new. Then we come to the debrief and Ryan, who’d been running the same setup as me, said, “This car’s trying to kill me!’ So I realized, cool, it’s not just me then…
“Garrett comes up with a lot of sayings, but one that will always stick with me from Texas is, ‘Remember, this weekend is not about how shit your car is but how shitty everyone else’s is!’ And he’s right: if the cars are gonna be a handful – and they definitely were at Texas – make sure yours is the least amount of a handful, and accept that it’s never going to feel truly good.”
Veach’s relative unfamiliarity with IndyCars, he admits, hurts him most in qualifying, when it’s time to dig deeper than at any other point in a race weekend.
“There are times when I come in during practice and Garrett says, ‘Well done, you’re top five for now,’ and then later in the session a few cars will go two or three tenths quicker, and I think, ‘Well the track got faster and I missed my apex in a couple of corners.’ I can explain that difference to myself. But then in qualifying, I’ll go and find that extra three tenths – and then the team tells you [Scott] Dixon or [Will] Power just went seven-tenths quicker, and you’re like, ‘How the hell did they find that much?!’
“Well, they’re the top guys, the ones who’ve been doing it a while, and they understand where to shave a tenth or half a tenth at just about every corner of the track.”
Now the IndyCar Series embarks on the second half of its 2018 season, with a trip to the gorgeous four-mile Road America course, a circuit where Veach has scored several podiums in junior formulas including a pole and win in Indy Lights. Will that foundation provide Veach some encouragement to push nearer the limits as all teams seek to generate (and learn from) data for the 2018 car on this track?
“I think so,” he says, “I feel it’s definitely come at the right time of the season for me. When I think about Indy Lights in 2016, it was Road America where I really got confident with the car moving around so much, and I felt in charge of it, rather than vice versa. And that’s what I felt at Detroit and Texas in an IndyCar – that I’m telling the car what to do.
“That should help at Road America. When the car’s trimmed out and responsive like that, it feels so good. You learn to be comfortable with the car feeling uncomfortable! And the track… I mean, how many tracks do we go to where you can reach the limits and step over them without it ending in a shunt? You can really push hard there.
“Also I think IndyCar now has an aero package that allows cars to run closer through the turns, which is very important on those long-duration ones, so I’m optimistic we can put on a really exciting race.”
And hopefully, Veach can be at the heart of it, showing why his zero-panic method of gradual self-improvement is worth the wait.