Twenty-three-year-old Zach Veach looks like the perfect guy for IndyCar’s youth movement.
He has a solid resume. He has a full-time ride with one of the series’ top teams, stable sponsorship and what appears to be a bright future. He understands the art of doing business and, in his first full-time season, he already sounds like a veteran.
If Veach succeeds, he could emerge as a cornerstone for the next generation of stars in the open-wheel series.
“It’s exciting to be part of something like this,” Veach said. “It’s humbling, too, because you can be the front-runner in Indy Lights and you come over here and you have to learn some things.”
Veach finished 19th at Barber and 26th at Indianapolis in his only two starts last season. This year, he finished 16th at the first two races, posted a career-best fourth at Long Beach and was 23rd in Saturday’s 24-car field at the IndyCar Grand Prix.
Series officials don’t necessarily need Veach to jump to the forefront just yet. They’re not going all in on one guy, either.
It’s possible more than 20 percent of this year’s Indianapolis 500 starters could be, like Veach, younger than 25. The class is rich in diversity and talent:
– Gabby Chaves, a 24-year–old Colombian, fended off Veach to claim the 2014 Indy Lights title. He competes with upstart Harding Racing.
– Ed Jones, the 23-year-old from Dubai, was last year’s rookie of the year driver for powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing.
– Kyle Kaiser, a 22-year-old Californian, was hired by Juncos Racing after winning last year’s Indy Lights title.
– Matheus Leist, a 19-year-old Brazilian, won last year’s Freedom 100 at Indy and now is being mentored by 2014 series champion Tony Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing.
– Pietro Fittipaldi, a 21-year-old Brazilian, will miss the Indy 500 after breaking his left leg and right ankle during qualifying for the World Endurance Championship. On Saturday, Dale Coyne Racing used 20-year-old Zachary Claman De Melo as the replacement.
– American Sage Karam, 23 and the 2013 Indy Lights winner, has shown promise in a variety of series but still hasn’t secured a full-time ride in IndyCar. He is attempting to make his fifth 500 start with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Veterans of the series believe this young group has a better chance of making an impact together than previously-hyped classes.
“We’ve got good, quality guys under 25 and now they’re driving for owners who hopefully will stick with them because that’s how I think that’s what develops them,” Ganassi Racing executive director Mike Hull said. “I think the crop you’re talking about is the crop we’ve needed for a long, long time but we didn’t have the stability to do that. Now, we do.”
Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition and operations, is a big believer in the young guys. He called this group “advanced” in terms of their experience and business savvy.
The problem, of course, becomes marketing.
In a sport where winning matters, big names rule, and sponsorship money is increasingly more difficult to find and keep, the biggest challenge might be finding teams and companies that are patient enough to stick with a young guy long enough to reap the rewards.
Hull estimates it takes about three years for most drivers to become consistently competitive in IndyCar.
“I’m not expecting to come in and win races right off the bat with a new car and a new team,” Kaiser said. “It just takes time and experience. Nothing trumps experience.”
Except actually winning.
The driver with the most at stake this month may be Karam, whose only scheduled race this season is the May 27 Indianapolis 500. Practice begins Tuesday with qualifying scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
“The hardest part is when you’re not a full-time driver and you don’t have a resume to show sponsors you can do well,” Karam said. “So this is what everyone sees. If I win, it would be a game-changer and you’d see a lot more of me.”
Perhaps the greatest asset in this young class is their determination to deliver on the promise.
“We all root for the young guys because we know hard it is to get here and how hard it is to stay here,” Veach said. “The business side has to be taken very seriously. When you’re young, you have to find a way to present yourself in a mature way to get the meetings you need to get. It’s not the ’90s any more where you can rely on talent.”