A lot of people outside of the racing world think that once the season ends in September or October that we have the whole winter off, but in reality, we are just as or even busier then we are during the regular season. Personally, I always look forward to the end of the year because that's when you take everything you've learned during the season and try to improve on it, especially if you plan on moving up to a bigger car like I am.
The only downside of winter testing is you miss out on the “race weekend” part of it. You still get to do qualifying sims and race runs, but it's never the same as having 19 other drivers who are giving everything to achieve the same goal as you.
Getting the rare opportunity to get in both winter testing and a race weekend is incredibly valuable for both me as a driver and for my team. After winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Winterfest Championship back in January, it's my goal to work to get the team another winter title in a Star Mazda through the Formula Car Challenge.
Last time you guys heard from me was after the Star Mazda season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where I managed to spin 360-degrees in the Corkscrew without losing a position, and finished on the podium with a third-place result.
Since then, all of the “Mazda Road to Indy” drivers had the opportunity to be a part of a two-day test at our dream track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway! The only thing that stopped us from taking on the four most historic corners in all of racing was this slight problem that it was a road course test. After the first few laps, I understand why we did the road course. It takes some time to register topping out at 155mph down the front straight after going through Turn 1 on the oval, and then braking for Turn 1 on the road course. I have to say it was a pretty big honor being able to drive through Turn 1 on the oval and across the yard of bricks. It was a great test for the team, and leading three out of the four sessions gave us the momentum to carry forward into our winter program.
When I got the word from the team that we would be competing in the Formula Car Challenge Winter championship at Sonoma and Fontana, I was really excited to get some more race experience under my belt before the start of next season. There's never a substitution for seat time, everything you can learn now, is only going to help when it comes race time during March when the new season begins.
Unlike when the IZOD IndyCar Series ran at Sonoma back in August, the Formula Car Challenge ran on a different configuration that turned the back side of the track into faster esses. That meant a smaller margin error and really makes you push the limits of the racecar. So, before we headed out there, I spent a lot of time on iRacing learning the new configuration, and going over data with my engineer Yancy on things I needed to work on. Right off the truck, the event started off on a positive note, and things kept moving in that direction.
We were able to lead all the practice sessions we competed in except for one and, on Saturday morning, I even had the opportunity to run the car in the rain for the first time – my favorite track conditions! But for some reason, the crew wasn't as excited as I was when it started raining…
I quickly noticed that with the added downforce the Star Mazda car has compared to the USF2000 machine, it makes the car able to be pushed that extra bit more in the high-speed corners with a wet track. The only downside of having more horsepower than the USF2000 car was the wheel spin – patience is everything when it comes to throttle.
Once the California sun came out, the track dried up just in time for our qualifying session. On a normal Star Mazda race weekend, you have to use the same set of tires you qualified on in the race, so it's always important to limit the amount of laps in qualifying so you can start the race on fairly new tires. However, the Formula Car Challenge was a doubleheader event, where the rules dictated you could only use a single set of tires for both qualifying sessions and both races. Even though the races were a little shorter than the pro events, it still brought a whole new meaning to saving the tires. You used them up when you had to, but took it easy on them whenever you could.
With that in mind, we tried to keep our qualifying run as short as possible with about a six-lap max as we tried to get our fastest lap without pushing the tires too far. The 20-minute session seemed to fly by and I earned my first pole in a Star Mazda car.
Moving on to the first race, we tried some changes to get more overall grip. As the green flag flew, we were able to get off to a great start. Within the first three laps, I built a four-second gap. I had my engineer giving me the lap times of second and third place, and worked on either matching them or being a couple tenths faster to keep a gap and save the tires as well. Right before the halfway point, I felt really settled in the car and I knew where it was comfortable for the car and just tried to keep it there. A spin off of Turn 7 brought out the yellow flag, and my comfortable gap evaporated. I used this opportunity to let my tires cool and got ready for the restart.
With just under 10 minutes to go, the pace car lights went out and we got ready for the green again. The flag flew through the air and the 19-car field ran full out up through Turn 1 into Turn 2. Looking in my mirror, I went a little deeper, well actually a lot deeper into the Turn 2 braking zone than I wanted, locking the right-front tire with a cloud of smoke and almost went off track barely catching the exit curbing. I recovered from my mistake and pushed hard the next two laps. By the time the checkered flag came out, I was already back to a five-second gap, getting my first win in a Star Mazda with every lap led.
The next day pretty much went the same way, I was able to grab the pole, and within the first five laps of the race, I was up to a five-second lead over second place. With the tires getting close to the end of their life, the car was better at some parts than it was at others on the racetrack. I used this knowledge to give up some of the corners to save the tires and pushed at other corners to keep pulling out a gap.
This race had a lot more action than the first one though, which was great for the fans! On lap 6, I started catching lapped traffic. At a place like Sonoma, it is already hard enough to pass, so this really made me plan where the cars would be by the time I got to them so I could get by with as little time loss as possible. At a little past halfway, I was up to a 10-second gap between second place when another yellow came out and it would be the end of the race.
Looking back on the weekend, being able to get both poles, lead every lap and get both race wins, I feel like I learned so much more than I would have expected – from saving the tires, making passes, and even running in the rain. Another fun part of the weekend was getting to meet all the great people on the West Coast. I had a blast racing with you all!
Last but not least, I really would like to thank everyone who helped make this past weekend possible, from the team getting everything ready for us at Sonoma, to my great crew, all of the guys back at the shop who hustled to get my new car ready in the short two weeks they had, and all my partners on the No. 77 Zakosi Data Backup car.
Hope to see you soon.
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.