By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Being thrown in on the deep end in the Verizon IndyCar Series isn’t a good thing, and being announced as a driver for Ed Carpenter Racing only days before making your debut at one of the more challenging natural terrain road courses in the country certainly doesn’t help matters.
However, Zach Veach had exactly that scenario play out for him at Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama as he wheeled his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet home to a 19th place finish.
For Veach, it was his first time in an Indy car since a test late last year at Sonoma and his first race came with a bit of hardship as his drink bottle was not working from the start of the race.
“I think the [drink] line just got pinched in my helmet at the start so no drink bottle for me in my first IndyCar race,” Veach said. “You know it was just one of those things, I’m used to running Indy Lights races in a lot hotter temperature without a drink bottle so I think that’s one thing that prepared me for this. I just got lucky that it’s about 68 degrees out right now.”
A race winner at Barber in Indy Lights in 2014, Veach was surprised at how his race went compared to his expectations.
“I’d say it was a little easier than I expected because I expected the worst. I’d rather expect it to be a lot harder than it was and turn out to be easier, the goal going in here was to do the best we can, finish and you know every session we kept closing the gap and closing the gap and I think on black tires compared to the leaders we were only 2-3 tenths off of their times.
“So I feel good about that but just still would love to have a test day to really figure out the car before I’m thrown into another race weekend so luckily with the Indy 500 we’ll have a lot of practice, a week long worth of practice before we get to the race.”
Compared to the start of the weekend, Veach improved quite a bit. In the first practice session on Friday, the Ohio native was last, a full 2.5 seconds off of the leader’s pace, but by the third practice session of the weekend on Saturday, he had trimmed the gap down to 1.6 seconds off the leader’s pace. Veach gained a further two tenths in qualifying with a best lap of 1:08.4681.
“[The difference was] night and day every day, really. That whole first day I really wasn’t comfortable with pushing the car because I didn’t want to bend it, I was very cautious. Second day I got a little more braver sliding the car around and we got faster and today I just had to go for it and each moment that I had on power I caught it and had a few lucky saves throughout the race that made me realize that I can catch this car, because there were a couple of times when I was like ‘Hell, my race is over,’ and I caught it and recovered so I was really thankful for that.”
His fastest lap in the race was a 1:10.0527, which although is 1.7764 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the race, Veach was able to be consistent and didn’t put a wheel wrong during the race except for getting a drive-thru penalty late in the race for entering a closed pit and taking service.
“To do it over honestly, I don’t think I’d change anything, the drive-thru kind of hurt us but that was a late call by the team and myself to try to get some spots so that one was on myself and the team. In the end [it] didn’t really hurt us that bad. If I could do it all over maybe I wouldn’t have pitted or I would’ve pushed to get into pit lane a little harder before that light came on I guess.”
And he still finished on the lead lap.