Firestone Indy Lights driver Zach Veach returns to Andretti Autosport for a fourth season as he heads into the final step of the Mazda Road to Indy developmental ladder system. Veach and former teammate Sage Karam are slated to become the first drivers to advance through the whole program and are also said to be the youngest competitors in the Indy Lights field in 2013.
The 18-year-old Veach spent two seasons in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and spent 2012 in the Star Mazda Championship, now referred to as the Pro Mazda Championship. He began testing in Indy Lights in August of 2012.
During the first Indy Lights open test last fall, Veach topped the speed charts and set the unofficial new track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while testing on the F1 course. He traded the top spot on the time sheet with his Andretti Autosport teammate Carlos Munoz several months later at the Homestead-Miami Speedway Open Test in late January. Munoz, who is returning for his second season of Indy Lights in 2013, ended fastest of all participating drivers, with Veach second, at that test.
Before Veach's final two open tests at Sebring on March 7-8 and Barber Motorsports Park with the IZOD IndyCar Series on March 11, we caught up with our returning RACER blogger to answer some of our burning questions before he got back behind the wheel this season.
RACER: You're heading into your fourth season with Andretti Autosport, what has it meant to you as a driver to have that kind of support?
ZV: First of all, to say I'm on Michael Andretti's team for a fourth season is just a huge honor for me! To have the same people around you going on four years just really builds such a great unbeatable work relationship. Drivers are constantly switching teams and that creates a window of transition for the drivers, the team and crew. Hinch [James Hinchcliff] alluded to it last week during our IndyCar teleconference call that he was excited to be at the same team two years in a row. My guys on our Firestone Indy Lights program I've known since I first started with the team in 2010 and that is very beneficial for everyone. They know by my facial expression if that change was a good one. It's also such a huge opportunity to be able to interact and be around all the great Andretti Autosport drivers and have them as teammate to learn from.
RACER: You and your teammate Carlos Munoz have taken turns trading the top spot on the time charts during the past open tests, how has having a veteran driver like Munoz as a teammate helped your development for the upcoming season?
ZV: First off, Carlos [Munoz] is a very quick kid. He's been teaching me a lot in the off season, for sure! He is one of the most serious drivers I've ever worked with, which has really helped me. I see how hard he has worked for it and how dedicated he is on and off the racetrack. I'm just very fortunate to have such a strong teammate this year like Carlos. He was very successful last year, and he's really putting a lot of pressure on me this year and definitely making me drive a lot harder.
RACER: What are your goals/expectations as you complete in these final two tests?
ZV: I think it's really about momentum. It's important that we have that before we get to St. Pete. The tests at Homestead went really well and Andretti Autosport was 1-2 both days. That's our goal in these two tests. I obviously want to be quickest but looking at it from a team standpoint, we want to be 1-2.
RACER: There are nine confirmed entrants for the open tests. Do you think that is enough for the series to maintain its spot as the feeder for the IZOD IndyCar Series?
ZV: I'm sure more drivers will slip in at St. Pete. We have to look at the nine drivers and everyone is really strong and will be very competitive. A lot of these guys are also from Star Mazda and the others were very competitive in Lights last year. We're all going to be chasing each other for the top spot. I think too as you move through the ladder you kind of weed out drivers along the way. In any sport, not everyone turns “pro” so we also have to think about these are nine of the best drivers in the wings for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
RACER: You are among the most high-profile drivers entering Indy Lights over the course of the past several years. What do you think that means to IndyCar?
ZV: I'm just happy to still be here and pursuing my dream. But with more visibility comes added pressure and responsibility. I think Billie Jean King said it right when she said, “Pressure is a privilege.” I want to continue to set a great example for those other drivers that are in Skip Barber, F2000, Pro Mazda and other series. All of us drivers in the ladder are the future of the sport of IndyCarand we're all reaching for the same dream of getting to the top. I love this sport and I'll continue to do what I can to help it grow.
RACER: Kyle Larson has been billed as the next great NASCAR driver...do you want to be that for IndyCar?
ZV: I'm not a driver that tries to get a big head and has an ego or anything like that. I've worked extremely hard to be where I am and we will continue to do what we have to do to be the best. We've been very aggressive with preparing for the upcoming season. I've always wanted to be the best and it takes a lot of hard work and I see every other driver in the ladder equally working hard to make it. We're all aiming to be the best driver and to continue to grow our sport.
RACER: Is racing at the Brickyard this May a precursor to seeing you compete in the Indy 500 in 2014 as a 19-year-old?
ZV: At this point, it's really early to be thinking about 2014. We are just really focused on 2013. I think it's best for me, and Michael [Andretti] thinks as well, that we take our time working our way up. So probably two years at least in Firestone Indy Lights and just taking our time learning as much as we need to be able to move up. So definitely dreaming big, but I'm just focused on this year right now, and we're going to go for hopefully the championship and see where we are at the end of the year.
RACER: What is one thing you think could help the sport of IndyCar?
ZV: I love IndyCar and I think one thing we have to continue to focus on is the great personalities we have and putting them out there and telling their stories. Hinch, Dario [Franchitti], Helio [Castroneves], my teammates at Andretti Autisport. Fans come here because they want to be apart of the sport and everyone has their favorite driver they cheer for.
We're not just guys that drive cars. We're people who can be out there socializing with the fans every weekend. IndyCar makes that available and that accessibility is something you don't see elsewhere. I never wanted to be that driver the fans didn't think they could walk up to and talk to. I was a fan before I was a driver and I know what it's like waiting for Michael Andretti's autograph, and he's a great role for all us drivers coming up the ladder. You see Michael out in pit lane during F2000 races, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights. You see him with the fans and interacting. You have to be accessible and relatable to the fans.
* Follow along with Zach's rookie season in the Firestone Indy Lights through his exclusive Racer.com blog entries through the 2013 season.