When I sat down to think about what I would share with you this month, I couldn't help but think about how excited (still) I am to have finally gotten my first win! I keep coming back to the fact that enjoying your trip across the finish line first and reaching success doesn't just happen overnight; it's from years of preparation and dedication to reaching your goals, whatever they may be.
I think part of success is positioning yourself to be in the right place at the right time. In 2010, Andretti Autosport began embracing the new “Mazda Road to Indy” ladder system, which has given me an opportunity to be part of the USF2000 National Championship Series with the team.
I consider the team my family away from home and it's one of the best things about racing. Being a part of the team has allowed me to meet one of my most supportive buddies, Sage Karam. Sage and everyone at the team have been in my corner since day one. Some of the most rewarding things you can do in life are helping others and it has bonded me to my team like I could have never imagined. From day one, I have always helped my crew out in any way I could, and in return they've helped me tenfold over.
Even though Sage is running Star Mazda now, we still get to see a lot of each other on race weekends (BELOW). He has become such a close friend and mentor to me. He allowed me to learn from his Skip Barber days and I'm starting to really get things down. After my first win during the Cooper Tires WinterFest last month, Sage showed me a quote from Ayrton Senna, “You will never know the feeling of a driver when winning a race. The helmet hides feelings that cannot be understood.”
During the first leg of the inaugural USF2000 Cooper Tires Winterfest at Sebring International Raceway, it was in the second race (our first race ended when we broke a halfshaft on the left rear with an eight-second lead, giving us a DNF) that I enjoyed my trip across that finish line first with a 16-second lead in my Zakosi Data Backup Mazda; I had finally won my first USF2000 race! And I got to celebrate it with my dad, Roger (ABOVE).
Prior to victory circle, as I made my warm-up lap, I thought about how the next 13 laps were going to go. I knew that all I had to do was just get out front and run my race; I didn't need to worry about what was behind me. My only goals were to conserve my tires and winning the race; I managed to do both! I led all four practice sessions at Sebring and even got my first pole position by five tenths! It was a moment I'll never forget when I saw the look on my team's face when I got to my pit box. After a long year of learning in 2010, I was finally showing them the driver I could be.
After testing at Palm Beach International Raceway, we had about five days off before Race 3. Sage suggested we all go shark fishing and I was really excited, as I had never been. I really didn't know what to expect; the biggest thing I ever caught in the past was a five-pound bluegill out of my neighbor's pond. After about a 10-minute boat ride, we were off of the coast by the reef. They threw lines into the water and within five minutes, I had a 300lb shark on the line; what the heck!? It took me an hour and a half of fighting with it to get it close to the boat. I had to sit in the chair and prop my feet against the boat so I didn't get pulled out. Between my dad, Sage, and I we caught nine sharks (six big ones and three little two-month-olds).
Before our final three races of Winterfest Homestead, it felt like I had been out of the racecar for a month. After I spent a couple weeks running iRacing and watching on-board video, I had a pretty good idea of where the track went, just really no hands-on experience. My teammate for USF2000 this year, Spencer Pigot, had multiple days already at Homestead from his experience in Skip Barber, so I definitely learned a lot from him. But there's only so much you can learn before you have to let it just come to you on the racetrack.
We had two 30-minute practice sessions before we went into qualifying and I was still working on getting the perfect line through Turn 3 and 4 until the end of the first race, where I finished second.
Before we left the track and headed back to the hotel, I had my engineer Scott Greaves print out a couple data comparison sheets and grabbed the onboard video to study before I went to bed. I went to bed that night like I always do; listening to my iPod and going over the corners in my head well past midnight.
The first session the next day was straight into qualifying, I knew what I needed to work on and as soon as I was on track I was just focusing on a slower entry and turn in earlier in Turns 3 and 4 and braking earlier and having a lower mid-corner speed for Turn 6 to get a better exit onto the straightaway. Every lap the corners seemed to feel better and better. Finally on lap 8, I had the pole and carried it all the way to the end of the session. The car was perfect and I didn't want to change it going into Race 4.
For being only my third pole start, we had a good clean run into Turn 1. The first 3 or 4 laps I didn't pull off too big of a gap mainly because I was just letting the car come to me. But after it settled in, we just pulled farther and farther from second. After 20 short laps, we finished first and took the lead in the Winterfest Championship by five points.
I started third in the last race at Homestead. Third is a lot better than second because the first three corners are left-handers and second place just gets left out on the outside. When the green flag flew, I tucked in the draft of my teammate and was in second by Turn 1. The draft was strong and the drivers in third and fourth got by me on the straightaway and held me up because they were running what seemed two-wide every corner. As we came back for lap three, third and fourth went into the turn side by side and made contact, taking both of them out; Merry Christmas to me!
By the time the caution was over, it was just between me and my teammate. I kept following in his draft and then made the decision to pass going on the outside of Turn 1 with tires that already had a race on them (so I had no grip and slid off of the track). I fell back to five seconds off of first and worked my way up to only a second behind him at the checkers. One thing I really learned was to save a pass, or think about how to set your self up for the perfect pass.
After a couple fun weeks in Florida, I had the honor to be the first USF2000 Winterfest Champion. My three pole positions, two race wins, four top-five finishes and four podium results was the work of my entire Andretti Autosport team during Winterfest and all the long hard hours we have put in.
The Winterfest really shows that if you try hard enough and work toward your goals, you can and will get better. One of the biggest things about being a driver is that you hate to lose so much that you're willing to change, and that's what I did. Learning to tap into that unrelenting power inside yourself is your greatest opportunity. Your talent determines what you can do and your motivation determines how much you are willing to do…so get to it! Your trip across the finish line may be closer than you think, especially if you've fully prepared for it.
Thank you for reading.
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.