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Veach happy to be thrown into IndyCar in Alabama

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Zach Veach had called Ed Carpenter Racing simply to check in on a fellow injured driver.

But, since he was on the phone and there was a temporary vacancy, Veach figured he may as well let general manager Tim Broyles know he was available and “more than happy to help out” if there was a need.

Carpenter and Broyles eventually took him up on the offer, meaning the 22-year-old from Ohio will make his IndyCar debut five weeks earlier than expected. He is filling in this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, while JR Hildebrand recovers from a broken left hand sustained in a last-lap accident at Long Beach.

Hildebrand. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s like being thrown into the fire a little bit,” Veach said, “but it’s a good fire to be in.”

Veach, who was already slated to run the Indianapolis 500 for A.J. Foyt Racing, was offered a ride in the No. 21 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Alabama earlier this week. Filling in for an injured driver is not the way he wanted to land his first IndyCar shot, but it was coming soon anyway.

This gives the young driver a chance to get acclimated to the Indy cars before getting behind the wheel at the signature race next month. He won the 2014 Indy Lights race at the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course in Alabama.

“In a way, I’m very thankful I can make my IndyCar debut before the Indianapolis 500,” Veach said. “It’s good to get familiar with the engine and the characteristics of the car itself as well as getting used to pit stops. I definitely think I’ll be a lot more prepared going into the month of May with this opportunity.”

Broyles had seen Veach come up the ladder from lower series to Indy Lights, where he had six wins and six poles in three seasons. This is just the next rung. Spencer Pigot, who will be Veach’s teammate at Barber, was the 2015 Indy Lights champion.

Veach’s first run in an Indy car, perhaps not so coincidentally, was in the No. 21 Chevy during a testing session at Sonoma Raceway last September. Clearly, Broyles and Carpenter liked what they saw.

They still do. Broyles said Veach has been asking the right questions and making good observations.

“He’s one of those guys that you can’t base his experience on his age,” Broyles said. “His experience probably outweighs his age. He’s very mature, and he does have a pretty good understanding of how things operate in the IndyCar series. He’s been around it enough and he’s watched and he was paying attention.”

Veach said he plans to be a sponge this weekend, soaking up advice from the team and other drivers. He got a mid-week call from friend James Hinchcliffe, the winner at Long Beach, with a track tutorial.

“He painted a pretty clear picture for me,” Veach said.

Broyles said the team’s goals still include remaining competitive and making it at least out of the first round of qualifying, but they also want the rookie driver to stay on the track and avoid contact when possible.

“Mainly just giving him laps and keeping his nose clean,” he said.

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994