First of all, I'd like to say it's a great honor for me to be back with Andretti Autosport for the 2012 Star Mazda Season and to again be blogging for RACER.com! I really want to thank Michael Andretti, J-F Thorman, all of my partners, and my family for their never-ending support allowing me to have this opportunity!
Being back with Sage Karam is definitely going to make this year even more fun than the last. With the two Star Mazda races I did in 2011, we really started getting back to working like we did in USF2000 together and that's one of the most important things about having a teammate; I think we'll be strong this year!
Last time I wrote, I had just finished the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course test, and won the first two races of the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Winter Series at Sonoma. Since then I've had the opportunity to get some more seat time and race experience, along with getting to see some pretty cool sights along the way, with a two-week adventure to California and Arizona.
After Christmas and New Year's, I started preparing for the last three races of the Formula Car Challenge races on the road course at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Having the points lead heading into the races, I knew we just had to be consistent and we'd have a chance to get the five-race championship.
As soon as I got to the track I noticed something that was a little hard to miss, and if you've been there before, you know what I'm talking about. Right by the track there is a 10,068ft tall mountain (Mt. San Antonio a.k.a Mt. Baldy) that when the sky is clear, you can see perfectly. With my interest in mountaineering, I had to stop and look at it a lot of different times throughout the weekend being amazed every time! Now back to racing…
After racing on the road course/oval at Homestead and at IMS, I'm really starting to like these types of tracks. Where we are on the oval part, we have to basically take as much wing out of the car as we can to get straight-line speed but that hurts when you get to the braking zones and fast corners of the infield because you don't have the down force pushing the tires into the ground. So, just like you make sacrifices on the car setup to get a bigger benefit, you have to do the same driving wise by pushing the car in the areas you can and being reserved in the areas you have to.
Friday practice at Fontana started and ended really well for us. By the end of the day, we were about a second faster than the rest of field, and only made a few minor changes on the car throughout the day to settle the rear down. I was more excited for the next day, though.
There was a 60-80% chance of rain in the morning and since we had two qualifying sessions then, we had to run in it! When I woke up Saturday morning and looked outside, we had a LOT of rain on the ground – even the rental car was hydroplaning on the way to the track – so, of course, I was eager to jump in the racecar and go! The only thing I wasn't too sure about was how the car was going to be on the oval banking through Turns 1 and 2 going 145+ in the rain. After working up to it each lap, I found the banking to be finally flat and we ended the session 7.4sec faster than P2.
In the next qualifying session, we started to have electrical problems that would kick the rev limiter in at an early rpm and sometimes cut the ignition all together. I made one lap and came back in, the team worked as fast as they could on the car and within a couple minutes, I was back on the track and able to get a timed lap in before the problem came back and ended our session. In the one timed lap, I was still able to get the pole by five seconds.
When we got back to the garage, the guys tore apart the car and changed everything but the driver in the short time we had between qualifying and the first race. During this time the track started to dry out as well and we made the decision to go to slicks even though there were still some puddles on the track, but I felt it was going to dry pretty quick, and looking back I was glad we did.
Once we got everything put back together, we rolled the car to the grid and I got in to follow the pace car. Once we went green, I pulled out a five-second lead before we got to the start/finish line, and by the end of my second lap, our problem came back. I went from first to fourth and then came in to try to get it fixed. At that point, there wasn't much we could do so we had to settle for a DNF. Once we got back to the garage the guys worked extremely hard to find the problem, and luckily we did, I can't thank them enough!
The next day I started on pole for the second race and won by 10 seconds leading flag to flag, scoring my my first SCCA National win! The next race, however, was a little more exciting. Because of my DNF I had to start from 14th position in the third race. As we went around for our parade laps I started to think about the laps ahead and with a points lead already, I knew I just had to finish the race, but after the guys working so hard, it gave me an edge, I had to do more than just finish the race. When we went green I just started picking my way up through the field and by the time we made it back to the front straight I was leading.
With every lap I just kept pushing harder and harder trying to find the limit and, by the end of the race, I had a lead over 15 seconds; winning the race and the Formula Car Challenge winter championship! It was a big honor for me and like last year, I know it's going to create some momentum leading into the season. I'd just like to thank Michael Andretti and the team for making it possible for me. I'd really like to thank the guys for working so hard over the weekend, too – couldn't have done it without them!
The very next day, my dad and I got up early and started the five-hour drive toward Arizona for my two-day test at Firebird Tuesday and Wednesday. On our way, it was another time that I was just in awe of the California landscape – mountains that reached past the clouds, and more windmills that we could count, not to mention all the sand and rock as we got farther away from the cities. You really started to feel like you were in a desert when signs about turning your air conditioner off high so your car doesn't overheat and warnings of last gas for X amount of miles started popping up. After I annoyed my dad with my music and fell asleep a couple times, we were pulling into the track just as the team was setting up.
I was excited to test at Firebird for a number of reasons but one that sticks out the most is remembering that one of my heroes, Ayrton Senna, actually tested an Indy car there in 1992, and this would be one of the first times that I know of being at the same track as Senna.
We ran the Firebird East circuit that is only about 1.25 miles long with 10 corners, so once we got up to speed, it put our times under a minute. With the track being so short it made it hard to pick up a lot of time in a particular area like you can at tracks like Sebring and Road America, so you really had to make sure you were getting every little hundredth you could out of each corner – which I think will be helpful this year, because we are running on so many street courses.
With Sage there, we turned everything into a competition – we are really starting to push each other and I think that's going to help out a lot this year, as a team: With every lap, we are on a search to find something to go just a little bit faster! By the end of the test, I was within two tenths of Sage. I still feel like there's more to learn before the start of the season and lucky we have a few more test days left.
I think 2012 is going to be a good year for Sage, for me, and the team as well; we just have to keep working hard and take a few notes from Michael Andretti on Celebrity Apprentice!
Star Mazda Championship driver Zach Veach drives the Andretti Autosport No. 77 Zakosi Data Backup/Mazda. For more on Zach, go to www.zachveach.com.