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Zach Veach: Foyt Indy 500 seat ‘the best comeback of my career’

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The first of two weekend confirmations for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil occurred on Friday as Zach Veach was announced in A.J. Foyt Racing’s third Chevrolet for the month of May.

For the 22-year-old out of Stockdale, Ohio, it comes as the culmination of a long road through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and a brief hiatus when it looked like his career might have stalled out entirely. Through methodical hard work, development and persistence, Veach’s story is a good one as he’ll arrive for his first Indianapolis 500.

Veach, who will drive the No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim entry, has been a mainstay in the MRTI since 2010, when he debuted with Andretti Autosport.

Although he’d won a handful of races en route to a title in the 2011 Cooper Tires Winterfest and posted back-to-back top-five finishes in the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons, he didn’t seem to be an immediate IndyCar prospect.

That said, his name started to emerge on the fringe of the conversation through his business savvy, which seemed advanced for his teenage years. He’d written a book, 99 Things Teens Wish They Knew Before Turning 16 (released on his 16th birthday), and campaigned against distracting driving in those years.

Veach finished 10th in his step up to Star Mazda in 2012 – a field that would include eventual IndyCar drivers Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam and others such as Connor De Phillippi, Gustavo Menezes, Stefan Rzadzinski, Ashley Freiberg and Corey Lewis who have moved on to sports cars – and then went to Indy Lights in 2013 where he finished seventh.

Veach finished third in Indy Lights in 2014 courtesy of a quantum leap in performance in his second year with Andretti Autosport. He won three times and had a shot at the title going into the final races of the season, but came up short to Chaves and Jack Harvey, who tied on points.

A hand injury and subsequent surgery sidelined his progress and cost him nearly the entire 2015 season. But it was that year, when he was out of the cockpit full-time save for a one-off entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with JDC-Miller Motorsports’ Oreca FLM09 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, that may have been the most pivotal in his career to date.

Veach interviewing Tony Kanaan. Photo: IndyCar

He’d met Brian Belardi and stayed in touch with the team owner throughout the year, as one meeting in a year when he kept himself entrenched in the IndyCar paddock as a member of IndyCar Radio. Veach hadn’t considered broadcasting from the start but quickly became a natural; he’s hopped on occasional broadcasts the last two years in both analyst and pit reporting roles. He also stayed in the paddock as a driver of two-seater IndyCars.

“Sitting at home with a cast on my hand and missing Indianapolis 500 practice, that was a time I thought it might be over,” Veach told NBC Sports. “But this is the best comeback of my career. Having Brian Belardi last year was key, and I have to thank him and everyone that kept me out front to get me in front of IndyCar teams.”

Veach’s 2016 season was a comeback story that was a good one in a significantly deeper Indy Lights field. He and Belardi won three races (Road America 1, Watkins Glen, Monterey 1 – incidentally where yours truly filled in on IndyCar Radio as an analyst for the Road America and Watkins Glen races!) and could have won more had it not been for a couple mechanical issues. Teammate Felix Rosenqvist won three races in a limited season, and also lost at least one win for something outside his hands.

He also made his IndyCar test debut for the first time at Sonoma with Ed Carpenter Racing, in what was widely considered a positive test.

But whether or not Veach could translate that solid effort on track into an actual race seat would again come down to those outside the cockpit business and networking lessons learned earlier. It seems a series of connections helped land his primary sponsor for this race.

“I think it was one of the quickest deals in Indy history,” Veach laughed. “From the time I called them, then getting to a verbal agreement that we could do, this took four days. I got lucky because Aaron Brockett, who’s the lead pastor of Traders Point Church, in Zionsville, Indiana, has helped to provide guidance in my life, personally and in my career. I called him and asked if he could help me. That led to Dan (Towriss), the President and CEO of Guggenheim Life… and everything snowballed from there.”

Veach understands expectations will be modest and he has a lot to learn, with his first running expected for the Rookie Orientation Program. And Foyt’s team is in the process of learning and developing both the Chevrolet aero kit and engine; Veach is expected to have Andy Brown as engineer and Andy O’Gara as strategist to aid his own development. Brown worked with Matthew Brabham at PIRTEK Team Murray last year and O’Gara was long a staple with wife Sarah Fisher’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and CFH Racing teams through 2015.

A.J. Foyt said the trio of Veach, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly will be an intriguing group of youngsters.

“I was young at one time, not any more, but one time. Of course, Mother Superior told me we had to put 40 on the car because it’s been 40 years since I won the ’77 race. That’s how we come up with the number,” he said.

“No, I always liked to work with young people. I think that’s how you build winners, is with young people. When you get actually so old, you’re just not going to win. Young guns, they want to win. That’s what we’re looking for.”

For Veach, two of his young colleagues and fellow Indy Lights veterans – Munoz and Chaves – will be key to his development and progression during May. Munoz was his teammate in 2013 and promptly finished second in the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie for Andretti Autosport; Chaves won the Freedom 100 the following year and has quickly become Veach’s best friend. The two hang out regularly and travel together, most recently doing two-seater driver duties at Long Beach. Chaves’ Indianapolis 500 program is close but not confirmed yet.

“Carlos taught me not to be afraid of the white line!” Veach said. “It’s no secret he likes to run down by the curbing. If it’s fast, I’ll transition into it! I’ve always had the little big brother/relationship with him and (his manager). He has three or four races under his belt already.

“I’m leaning on Gabby Chaves too. He’s my closest friend, he’s done the race two times now, and he gives me every bit of advice. I have a lot of good friends to lean on.”

He’ll be one of at least three rookies in this year’s Indianapolis 500 (Harvey, Ed Jones) with potentially more to come.

GAINSCO partners with JDC-Miller for Simpson, Goikhberg

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The bright yellow No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, nicknamed the “JDC Banana Boat,” will morph into the latest incarnation of the bright red “Red Dragon” for 2018.

The now GAINSCO Auto Insurance-backed No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson will run the full 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, and the new livery will be revealed at the Roar before the Rolex 24.

GAINSCO revealed last month it wouldn’t run its own team, having partnered with Bob Stallings Racing for more than a decade with great success in GRAND-AM Rolex Series competition. But it was still going to partner with a team and received multiple proposals from other teams. The initial deal with JDC-Miller Motorsports is one year for 2018 with an option for 2019, but both parties envision this growing into a multi-year deal.

The last few years the team has run only on-and-off, with a one-off appearance in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona as Alex Gurney scored pole, but a devastating accident for Memo Gidley having left him seriously injured. Gidley has made significant strides in his recovery.

Since that point, GAINSCO/BSR moved into Pirelli World Challenge, running first a Hyundai Genesis, then a McLaren 650S GT3, and then a Porsche 911 GT3 R with Gurney’s longtime co-driver Jon Fogarty. The same level of success was hard to find and while the team scored several podium finishes, wins eluded them over two years.

Alas, this provides John Church’s quality operation a major supporter both from visibility and agent standpoints, as GAINSCO is one of the biggest at-track activators in the sport. Primary drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg continue for the full season with Chris Miller the third driver for Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds.

A fourth driver will be named later (likely within the next week to 10 days), but won’t be Jon Fogarty, as Bob Stallings offered him the opportunity but Fogarty declined owing to other business commitments.

“We offered Jon Fogarty the opportunity, took a couple days (to think), he couldn’t feature anyone else driving but him… he has successful business ventures and that takes priority at this time,” Stallings said.

Church and Stallings. Photo courtesy of GAINSCO Racing

Stallings, Executive Chairman of GAINSCO, as well as the founder of the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Race team, recently decided not to run his own race team, but is committed to continuing the legacy of the Red Dragon by partnering with an organization capable of a long-term winning program.

“We had many opportunities to continue our quest for championships and JDC-Miller MotorSports was an easy pick,” said Stallings of the Minnesota-based team. “John Church and John Miller have established themselves as a team to be reckoned with, even against the formidable competition in IMSA.”

“We are very honored to gain the support of GAINSCO Auto Insurance and to carry on the livery of the No. 99 Red Dragon,” Church added. “It was immediately evident that the GAINSCO folks are as committed as we are.  This is a tremendous opportunity for JDC-Miller MotorSports and we look forward to the season ahead.”

Andy Jordan, Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Business Development led the search for the GAINSCO’s 2018 racing partnership.

“We were amazed and flattered by the amount of interest we received from teams who felt their racing programs would be elevated by an opportunity to partner with us and run the famous “Red Dragon” livery.  There were several important considerations for GAINSCO; the team had to compete at the highest level, and it had to feel like the kind of family we could be a part of and believe in.

“JDC-Miller Motorsports was the team we kept coming back to.  They race prototypes, they are great people, they are committed to win and the parallels between JDC-Miller Motorsports today and GAINCSO/Bob Stallings Racing in 2006/2007 were abundant.  I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to join John and his team for the 2018 season and hopefully beyond.”

JDC-Miller is adding a second car this season, with Simon Trummer its first confirmed driver and Robert Alon having tested with the team at Daytona earlier this month. This car will maintain the “banana boat” livery and will announce the rest of its program later.

Church said there “hasn’t been a discussion” in terms of adding Bob Stallings Racing personnel to JDC-Miller’s lineup as it sits, but it could be integrated.

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA