Dave “Poppy” Popielarz, crew chief and mechanic at Andretti Autosport, told Sage Karam and I before we got into the cars at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for our last race of the 2011 season, “You're only as good as your last race, so go out their and don't act your age!”
The lessons we get from Poppy both on and off the racetrack, always seem to stick with me. I was excited about a Star Mazda race being my “last race” of 2011, even though it was only my second race in that style of car, so I had a lot to learn fast!
Before stepping into the Star Mazda machine, I capped my 2011 season in the USF2000 National Championship fourth in points. The weekend on the streets of Baltimore was not the season-end race we had hoped for; thank God for that last Star Mazda race!
After Baltimore, I went with the Karams and stayed with them until we left for Monterey. “Camp Karam” is what I call going to Sage's to train with him and his dad Jody. If you're not ready to hurt throughout your whole body, you might want to just pass on it.
I knew it was going to be a tough week, when we started working out as soon as we got home! The 11 days I was there were a blast, though; of course, the working out was tough but that's only to make you better at the end of the day. Sage and I did get some normal 16-year-old stuff in, too: football game, chasing girls, rental go-karting (which we almost got kicked out of because of rough driving), and we even made our way to the RC car track. In fact, Sage and I are planning to create our own RC car team and race in the ROAR Championship next year.
The week-and-a-half break was over before I knew it and it was time to fly to California. Heading into the last Star Mazda race of the year and being my second-ever race in the series, our main goal was to just go get laps, and if we get lucky, finish in the top five. In both practice days we were always in top eight, except for when we didn't go to new tires at the end of Thursday. That's where we expected we would be, still learning the car; we had a lot to figure out! The way the schedule was, we were completely off on Saturday, so we did a little sightseeing but mainly sat back and looked through data and my Replay XD video to see how we can get the top five we wanted on the weekend.
The main thing I needed to work on was just trusting the car to roll more entry speed into the corner. I felt confident going into qualifying and we were shocked at the outcome. We held P1 until about six minutes to go, and then was bumped to fourth right at the end by my teammate who got me by a tenth and a half.
With just an hour in between qualifying and the race, we changed a couple things and headed out to the pre-grid. We got suited up, did our recon lap and pulled up to our starting box. As the lights lit up, my car started creeping forward, so I had to let out of the throttle to stop it. When it went green, I only had 30 percent throttle on, so that really didn't help us off the line and we struggled there. Only three or four seconds into the green we had the first yellow of the race – and, unfortunately, it was for my teammate.
When we went back to green, I managed to pull out a comfortable four-second gap between me and fourth place, but with every corner, the car just seemed to lose more and more rear grip. Looking back, I think I could have been a little easier on my tires to make them last a little longer, but you learn as you go in the “Mazda Road to Indy.”
With 10 laps to go in the race, I was pushing harder than I should have and did a complete 360 at the exit of the Corkscrew (check my YouTube, cool video!), kept the car alive, dropped two gears, and took off staying in third. Shortly after that the last yellow came out, and when it went back to green, I had two laps to hold off fourth place, and after two laps, I couldn't believe that we did. I know it was a third but it felt like a win for me and the team!
Another exciting part of the weekend for me was announcing our partnership with Replay XD and having Kori and Stan from Replay at the track with us for the weekend! The cameras Replay XD make are unbelievable. They all recorded in HD and having them on the racecar really helps out. There are so many more things you can pick out on line with Replay than you can with a regular camera, so you definitely have to check them out!
I really want to thank my dad for everything he has given up so I can race. To Zakosi Data Backup, The Young Marines, Arai and Replay XD for coming on board with me for this journey, and my awesome team, Andretti Autosport, for giving me the opportunity to race the last two Star Mazda races!
Had we not done the Star Mazda race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I would have been heading into the off-season a bit disappointed in our results from Baltimore. But, like Poppy noted, I wanted my last race to be a big one for me! I went out and I didn't want to leave anything behind and we managed to get third to close the year – my first podium in Star Mazda!
Seeing that we can get on the podium, it gets me really excited for next year, hopefully competing in Star Mazda if we can get our funding together. It would be awesome to be back with Andretti Autosport, and having Sage Karam as a teammate again would be a big help. I really want to thank RACER for giving me the opportunity to share my season with you all this year. I hope I get to do the same with you next year!
Until then, keep up with me on Twitter (@ZachVeach) or on my Facebook fan page.
USF2000 National Championship driver Zach Veach drives the Andretti Autosport No. 7 Zakosi Data Backup/Mazda. For more on Zach, go to www.zachveach.com.