Meet the Contenders: Zach Veach
 September 9, 2016| 
  • Series News
Zach Veach is one of six drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship crown entering the doubleheader season finale this weekend at Mazda Raceway.

PALMETTO, Fla. – When Zach Veach decided to return to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires for a third season, it was with some apprehension. Having sat out last year due to wrist surgery and budget concerns, Veach was coming back to a series he knew (having finished third in the 2014 championship) but with a new team – Belardi Auto Racing – and a new car, the Dallara IL-15. 

But Veach, 21, knew that his best chance to reach his goal of a full-time ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series was to earn notice in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder. What Veach didn’t anticipate was that the lessons learned both on and off the racetrack this season would serve him well as that goal comes closer to his grasp. Veach tested an Indy car with Ed Carpenter Racing yesterday at Sonoma Raceway, and heads to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the final two races of the season lying sixth in the championship fight.

Veach is one of only a handful of drivers to compete on all three rungs of the ladder, comprising the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. He pursued a ride in the IndyCar series throughout last winter, to the point that when a ride was not forthcoming, he found himself on the outside looking in as the season began.

“The biggest mistake I’ve made in my career so far was trying to get to IndyCar in 2015 without any alternatives,” said Veach. “I was so set on making that happen after two years in Indy Lights that when it didn’t, I chose to sit out until I got something together. I think that’s been part of the reason for our inconsistency this year: after taking a year off, it’s hard to get back into the rhythm of how things are supposed to be.”

Starting the season alongside a new teammate, reigning FIA Formula 3 champion Felix Rosenqvist, Veach struggled to erase the muscle memory of two years in the old Indy Lights car (early in the season, the team began charging Veach $1 for each mention of “the old car…”). He was leading the opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla. when a mechanical issue sent him to the back of the field. He earned a podium in the next race as Rosenqvist earned the victory, and took another at Barber Motorsports Park – but then an incident with another car early in the Freedom 100 removed what he believed to be an opportunity for a win.

“As we got deeper into the season and had the full load of a championship, that’s when the inconsistency really showed. The Freedom 100 stands out in that regard – I wish I had been a little more patient. You understand the flow of things when you’ve been at it for a few years. I felt as though I had to prove myself every weekend and that kind of led me to push too hard.”

As the season hit the midpoint, Verizon IndyCar Series teams began talking to Indy Lights drivers about testing opportunities, per the INDYCAR rule that allows teams an extra day of testing if they run an Indy Lights driver. Veach watched his competitors sign on for tests one by one, until Ed Carpenter Racing called early last month. Knowing he would finally be getting behind the wheel of an Indy car took away a mental weight that Veach might not have even known existed.

“I really think that a lot of my frustration earlier this year was feeling as though I should have been in IndyCar. So getting the test with Ed Carpenter was such a relief. It made me feel as though I could just go back to doing what I love. So I feel that in the grand scheme of things, this year was necessary. I’ve learned so much. In 2014, I won races because I started up front, or I had a fast race car. This year I’ve had to pass a lot of cars, starting sixth at Iowa and fifth at Watkins Glen. This year has made me a better race car driver, so there’s a reason that I came back to Indy Lights.”

Veach earned his first victory of the season in familiar style, taking the pole position and leading the race wire-to-wire. He scored a second win last weekend at Watkins Glen in a race more typical of this season, fighting back from clutch issues that limited his qualifying time and a balky starter that saw him roll onto the grid with only moments to spare. He roared from fifth to second in the first turn, and overtook championship leader Santi Urrutia with a bold move under braking for Turn Five. In Victory Lane, Veach knew this was the race – and the racecraft – he’d been missing.

“The difference at Watkins Glen was that I didn’t endanger myself in the moves I made on that first lap. I had to make something happen and I knew being on the inside, there was a chance the guys on the outside would make a mistake. I was ready to brake a little deeper and get back to power before some guys and win the drag race to the Bus Stop and it just worked out perfectly. It shows how much I’ve grown as a driver.”

Veach now lies sixth in the title chase, 41 points behind Urrutia. The post-Watkins Glen tightening of the point race has Veach in a different mindset heading to the Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway, where he finished third in Pro Mazda in 2011.

“If you’d asked me a few days ago, I’d have said I’d do anything to finish in the top three in the championship, which is where I finished in 2014. The goal is still the same, but now that’s the 'B' goal. I want to win the championship. I have to make smart decisions, and if I win both races, it could happen.”

Veach knows now that he made the best choice possible by returning to Indy Lights and gaining valuable knowledge. In the end, it’s all about the experience.

“The biggest difference this season is that I’ve appreciated every moment of it, and that’s something that 2015 really taught me. I don’t remember a single time in 2014 that I really just enjoyed the moment, because it was so intense. So many times this year, no matter how the day was going, I thought about how happy I was to be here.”
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