The amount of respect I have for the Indianapolis 500 is unmatched. I've been dreaming about competing in the Indy 500 for as long as I can remember and arguably, it's every racecar driver's dream to qualify for THAT race. It was the first race I ever saw on TV and the first race I ever attended. There is so much history there that shows you, that it's more than just a race; they say it's a spectacle.
The thing that makes you respect the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that much more, is even the best teams can have off years; nothing is a given at the speedway. Before I was about to enjoy the big race, I was preparing for my own race and the one-year anniversary of my first USF2000 race with Andretti Autosport – the “Night Before The 500” at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. My race is just another step to achieving the dream of being in the Indy 500 one day.
I was really excited for the “Night Before the 500” because I'm more of an oval racer than a road course guy at heart – the important race to win is on an oval, right? We learned a lot last year but there's always room for improvement in myself, and the car. I also have thank the folks from Mazda and IndyCar for hosting the Oval Clinic because, no matter how experienced you are, you can always be better. Taking all of the information to the track for practice on Friday lead us to fighting for P1 all day.
Carrying our momentum into race day, we managed to have a solid qualifying attempt and would roll from the second position on the grid after a near-graze of the Turn 4 wall. My car was a bit loose but improved my starting position over 2010, so that was definitely positive. While we were driving the cars onto the front straight, the clouds started to open up and the race was rain delayed until about 9:30 p.m.; which I didn't mind to much because it gave us the opportunity to drive under the lights in our first night race.
After the long wait, I was ready to be back in the car! Having a bad finish in race two at Sebring and a fourth-place finish in St. Pete, it has really made me point-driven for the next races. We're always going for the win, but if the car isn't there, you just have to do the best with what you have and get points.
The race was set up for five pace laps, and 70 race laps. As we came around Turn 4 for the green flag, going into Turn 1, I only had one thing in my mind – save your tires! It was a long race and as Poppy [our crew chief] told me, “Pretend you have $75 in the bank. Every time you turn, you spend 25 cents. When your driving hard you're spending 50 cents and you want to have at least 15 bucks in the bank the last 10 laps.”
After about five laps I settled into a grove and started gapping third place, running with Petri Suvanto. I just concentrated on saving the tires and running consistent laps, hitting my marks every time. As the tires started to wear at the halfway point, I dropped back to third but had a cushion over fourth. About 20 laps to go, the leader was taken out by lapped traffic and left Petri and I to battle it out in the last 10 laps.
Once the mess was cleaned up, and I let my tires cool, I was trying as hard as I could for the win. Green flag, Petri pulled a gap but with about seven laps to go I was right on him. I dived to the inside of Turn 1 but it wasn't enough, the same with Turn 3; I still couldn't quite get it. Before I knew it, it was the checkered flag with a second-place finish—two better than last year! I feel we did the best we could, and we just have to keep moving forward.
After my work was done, it was time to enjoy the big race! With this year being the 100th anniversary, I had the opportunity and the honor of meeting legends like Richard Petty and the heroes like Kevin Steel who is a former F-14 aviator, Navy Admiral Allen G. Myers and his son Andrew. Also I was very humbled to have the national director of the Young Marines, Mike Kessler, his wife Kim, and 2010-2011 Young Marine of the Year Casey Scott as my guest at both my race and the Indy 500. I was even able to watch the race from the roof of the Pagoda with some armed forces members! Thanks to Mike, Kim, and Casey, I am now an honorary Young Marine Sergeant and a part of Casey's unit.
I couldn't talk about this year's Indy 500 without also mentioning how cool the Hot Wheels jump was. You have to check the video out on Facebook – super cool!
Last but not least, I would like to thank all of the service men and women that have risked their lives for our freedom, the Indianapolis 500 falls on Memorial Day weekend and without your service and sacrifices, we couldn't do what we do. Racecar drivers are often looked at as heroes, but you all are the real heroes! Thank you for your service!
Our next race is at the Milwaukee Mile on June 18, where we'll be paired with IndyCar again. This week is my last week of school, and then it's iRacing, training and enjoying the summer working toward my dream of one day being at the Indy 500 not as a spectator but as a competitor.
I would love to hear from you on Twitter (@ZachVeach) or at questions@Zachveach.com. Appreciate you being along for the ride.
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.