I was beyond excited to say the least when I heard Michael wanted me to move up and do Sonoma and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in a Star Mazda car. I can't really thank him enough for another great opportunity with Andretti Autosport. The team is home to me, and it's my plan to stay with them all the way to the top; one rung at a time!
My first time in the Star Mazda car with other drivers on track was at the Sonoma test a couple weeks ago. There were some mechanical problems we couldn't fix that day, so our times didn't give us a good gauge where we were at compared to the other drivers who had been competing on the circuit full time. We just focused on getting comfortable with the car and learning how to use some of the benefits associated with having some more down force to use. Right away I could feel a lot of differences between it and the USF2000 car. Still, the Star Mazda car seemed to fit my style a lot better than the USF2000 car has. With the Star Mazda car, you want to be really smooth with the steering and throttle, patient for power down out of the corner, and you have to be really aggressive with your braking when you have the downforce. As the car slows, you have to back a little off the pressure, release the brakes and try to roll in as much speed as possible.
The biggest things I had to learn and am still learning are just the limits of the car in high speed corners and the Goodyear tires. The tires are pretty soft, so you have to be really careful to not overwork them in the race because if you have a small imbalance at the beginning and you really work the tires hard, your race pace will suffer at the end.
When we came back to Sonoma for the race weekend we had all the problems from the test figured out and we were ready to hit the track!
The first practice session went better than the team and I expected. We found ourselves running in P2 until the very end and dropped back to finish the session at P5. In the second session, we ended up P8 just one spot behind my teammate Sage Karam, even after neither of us had the chance to go to new tires.
Next up was qualifying and I have to say looking back I think I could have really pushed the car a bit more with the new tires. But with it being my first time, I didn't want to chance it and lose the track time. I was put into Group A to qualify and we finished out our group being P1, and we really helped clean the track off for Group B as well. Halfway through the session for Group B, Sage and I found ourselves sitting second and third on the speed charts. Then something happened that looking back we should have tried. The other guys came back into the pits and put a second set of new tires on even though it deleted their previous time and went back out to try again. From what we could tell, the track seemed to only get better and my teammate and I watched our numbers 88 and 77 move down the time chart finally stopping at P6 and P8, respectively.
My goals for my first race were to at least finish and try to improve my starting position. The most intimidating part of it for me was the standing start. Sage was telling me how the car would creep if you got the clutch too hot. The lights counted down, and we had a great start. I was on Sage's gearbox leading into Turn 1 and after I completed the first lap, I just tried to settle into a rhythm and get to work. In all the practice sessions, we had problems with the car going lose after a few laps. Since we were worried about that for the race, we really locked the rear down. We had some under steer from the beginning, and Sage was right that the problem would only get worse. By the time the halfway point came along, I couldn't take the carousel anywhere near the speed I used to and with every lap we seemed to lose time there. At the end we managed to achieve both of my goals: we finished the race and got a seventh out of it.
I can't thank everyone who put this together for me enough; from Michael to all my crew guys at Andretti Autosport, Zakosi Data Backup and of course my dad – thank you for all the hard work and believing in me!
I've learned this past year that you never stop learning, whether it's your second or even third season in a series. The more you learn, the better you are going to be. The important thing is you need to take your time getting to the top – two years in each series at least – but there just isn't a blanket rule for how long it takes to develop your race craft.
When I look back at the Atlantic Championship Series, although I hate that it ended like it did, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It gave me an opportunity of a lifetime being with the great team I'm on, and after two years in a USF2000 car. I now know I wasn't ready to make that jump.
I want to take my time getting to the IZOD IndyCar Series. I want to learn everything I can at lower levels and put it to work in an IndyCar. When I reach my dream, I don't want to be just a driver; I want to be a great driver!
I'll be running my last two races in USF2000 this weekend in IndyCar's inaugural visit to the streets of Baltimore. Like always, there are four different cars that can cross the finish line first. It's really a great opportunity though with the track being new. Nobody has a setup or line down, so we're going to have to make every minute and lap count to be successful at the end of the day.
I do have to say it's going to be hard to watch the Star Mazda guys out there tearing it up. But not to worry, I'll be back on the Star Mazda circuit at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to close out my 2011 racing season!
Thanks for 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.