Zach Veach looking to get back into a rhythm in 2018

Photo: IndyCar

In the immediate aftermath of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach gave a highly critical assessment of his debut race with the team, describing it as “messy.”

Now a couple weeks removed from St. Pete, Veach’s analysis has softened somewhat, and he explained that the weekend had its positives, especially leading into the race.

“Our goals going into the weekend were to try and transfer to the Fast 12 in qualifying and then just work our way to get a top 15 finish and just get the first race out of the way,” he explained to NBC Sports. “We missed out on transferring by four hundredths of a second after a little bit of contact on my fast lap, so I feel pretty good about (that). We would have definitely transferred to the Fast 12 if that didn’t happen.”

However, he continued to assert that his race not as clean as he wanted, highlighting early-race contact with A.J. Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan as an example.

“The race was just a little messy on my part,” Veach said. “I made a mistake there with Tony (Kanaan) thinking…he got off Turn 8 a little slow so I figured I had an opening there, but that didn’t work out well for either of us.”

Veach added that spending time away from racing – he ran only two races in 2017 – was a big factor in his rustiness.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was Zach Veach’s first Verizon IndyCar Series race since the 2017 Indianapolis 500. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m trying to hone everything in again,” Veach revealed, adding that a pair of recent tests at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course are evidence of progress.

“I think St. Pete was kind of the transition on that, because since then we’ve had two really strong tests (at Barber and Indianapolis), both kind of half days from weather, but we were tenth quick at Barber and had the speed to be in the Top 5 at the Indianapolis road course and made a small mistake. So, it’s getting easier and the progression is where we want it to be.”

Breaking back into the regular routine of racing has not been an easy task for Veach, whose career has been start-and-stop in recent years

In 2014, he was a race winner and championship contender in the Firestone Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship with Andretti Autosport, but did not have a full-time race seat in 2015.

He returned to Indy Lights in 2016, with Belardi Auto Racing, winning another three races on his way to fourth in the championship, but again could not secure a full-time seat in 2017, doing one-off races with Ed Carpenter Racing – he subbed for JR Hildebrand at Barber Motorsports Park, and A.J. Foyt Racing at last year’s Indianapolis 500.

In terms of getting back into a rhythm, Veach thinks his 2016 Indy Lights season gives a hint about how long it could take.

“I noticed it firsthand in 2016 when I came back to Indy Lights with Belardi,” Veach said. “We kind of struggled until we got our first win of the season and pole at Road America at the halfway point, and then from that point on we were leading laps and challenging for wins, going on to win two more races at the end of the year.”

However, Veach is hopeful that the greater number of race weekends for the Verizon IndyCar Series means that progression will go much more quickly.

“I’m expecting, because we have a lot more races in IndyCar, that time should be about the quarter-way through the season than the half, but it definitely a takes a little bit of work to try to get that ball rolling again once it’s been stopped,” he expressed.

And that process has multiple layers.

“It’s getting that physical condition,” he said. “Just understanding how long these races are. It’s getting that mindset that you need for long races. Just like your body, you have to have that mental conditioning, just getting into the habits of it.”

He added, “And a lot of it comes down to that muscle memory. When you’re driving the car, you’re not necessarily thinking about driving the car when things are flowing perfectly. And I think, before you really get that momentum on your side, you’re still thinking about driving a little too much. And that tends to hold you back a little bit, because you’re just trying to reprogram all the reactions and the timing of brake releases and turn-ins and such. It’s just sharpening everything.”

Veach has been hard at work on the physical side for a while now and dramatically increased his muscle mass – he was previously one of the lightest drivers in the paddock – in preparation for 2018.

“We were able to gain close to 20 pounds (between) the Indy 500 and the very first test in January. It’s taking less of my maximum effort to get the car around, which is helpful. All through testing, we felt great.”

Veach’s progress could also be helped by the nature of the 2018 aero kit, which he explains makes the car feel more like an Indy Lights car, in that it gives the driver much more feedback than the previous aero kits from Honda and Chevrolet.

“The new car races a lot like the Indy Lights car,” he said. “And I say that from a standpoint of the old IndyCar was really hard to get that ultimate lap time out until you just had a lot of seat time in it because you had so much downforce, it was really hard to feel where the limit was.”

He continued, “The new car, much like the Lights car, it’s always dancing around from the get-go. So it’s giving you a lot more feedback from the sense of you really kind of know where that line, that limit is. And you’re just trying to manipulate it the best way possible.”

As for expectations, Veach is using 2018 as a learning year, but does have some tangible goals he’d like to achieve by the end of the year. His next step in that direction is Saturday night’s race at Phoenix and at Long Beach a week later.

“The big expectation is trying to just get that time and get that ball rolling again,” he said. “But the end of the year goal is I want to at least have a couple of (Firestone Fast Sixes) under our belts. I’d like to finish in the Top 5 or even get a podium by the end of the year.”


Pfaff Motorsports parks in premier territory while punching above its weight in GTD Pro

Pfaff Motorsports Rolex 24
Jordan Lenssen/IMSA

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After his team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the most stirring slam-bang finishes in the storied endurance race’s history, Steve Bortolotti’s phone blew up.

The general manager of Pfaff Motorsports received 370 text messages about the No. 9 Porsche being driven to the GTD Pro victory by Mathieu Jaminet over the No. 2 KCMG Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (who helped Pfaff win the 2021 GTD title).

“I’ve never had my phone blow up like ever,” Bortolotti told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘What the (expletive)? This is better than the actual race! It was awesome.”

His phone blew up again last week at Daytona International Speedway – but for an altogether different reason.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

The Pfaff Motorsports truck driver proudly had sent a photo to the team’s group text chat, showing that the No. 9 was parked directly beside the gleaming haulers for the new Porsche Penske Motorsports.

As the defending series champions in GTD Pro, Pfaff was situated beside the nine cars in the ballyhooed new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category with the next-best spot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship garage.

It’s indicative of Pfaff’s impressive growth curve over less than a decade in IMSA, building in stature from plaid-clad Canadian underdog to GT powerhouse while continuing to punch above its weight against the biggest factory teams in sports-car racing.

“Everyone is like, ‘That’s awesome, we’re on the front side of the garage!’ ” Bortolotti said. “That’s really cool for my guys. I never even thought that it mattered. I just was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and people around because we’re beside Penske.’ They’re looking at it as, ‘This is really cool and something I’ve always wanted.’ You really don’t know what motivates people, and they probably didn’t know they wanted that until they had it.”

Bortolotti has been leading Pfaff Motorsports, which is based in a 20,000-square-foot shop 20 minutes north of Toronto, since its inception in 2015.

Chris Pfaff (the team’s CEO and president) entered sports car racing as a sponsor promoting the Pfaff Automotive dealership network in Canada. He founded Pfaff Motorsports after discovering many of the Pfaff Automotive employees worked in racing on the side (and often competing against the Pfaff-sponsored car).

Within five years, the team realized its goal of reaching IMSA’s national series in 2019. Within the next three years, it had two championships (in GTD and GTD Pro the past two years) and the 2022 Rolex 24 victory.

“It all starts with a vision to know what you’re striving for or else, racing becomes a fast waste of money if you aren’t chasing something,” Bortolotti said.

It’s been a memorable run for a team that has only seven full-time employees and celebrates its gritty spirit as a Porsche customer team beating factory-backed operations with budgets that could be up to 50 percent larger. On the Pfaff Motorsports website, all of its team members are featured with mug shots and titles – as well as “Turbo Ted,” the shop dog.

Bortolotti is proud that the team has been kept mostly intact over the past eight years with technical director Andrew Marangoni (who started as an engineer) and car chief Corey Whiteman among the stalwarts in another example of quality over quantity.

“I’d rather have seven extremely talented people,” Bortolotti said. “I’d put my seven up against anyone … give me seven in those equal jobs in other teams, I bet mine are better. I think that confidence I have in them, and they need confidence in themselves but can’t be cocky. There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m glad that most of my guys are confident in their abilities and not here to become celebrities. They’re just here to win races.”

With an influx of cash and staffing this year in GTP (which added Porsche and BMW), Bortolotti fretted that some of his team would be peeled off by the premier prototype division, but its tight-knit culture held firm against recruitment from the factory programs.

“One gentleman was approached hard by two manufacturers and told them ‘I go racing because I enjoy it here,’ ” Bortolotti said. “He’s worked for those programs, in Formula One and elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, I wake up every day and enjoy doing stuff with (Pfaff). It’s not worth another however many thousands to (leave Pfaff).’ That was nice to hear we’re building something great.

“I’m very adamant there aren’t a lot of egos within our team. I feel that’s a huge detriment in racing.”

Pfaff’s lowest moment came just before its biggest successes.

The COVID-19 pandemic was doubly hard for the team, which faced the specter of economic hardship layoffs mixed with quarantine restrictions that lasted through June 2021 and made travel extremely difficult across the border.

But Pfaff soldiered through and added Vanthoor (who was left without a ride Porsche shuttering its GTLM team) to pair with Zacharie Robichon for the 2021 championship season.

“The worst year of my life was 2020,” Bortolotti said. “I never knew if we were going to get back here. A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices. Everyone took it with a smile on their face. Leaders of companies are really judged on how they handle those situations.

“As much as it hurt not racing in 2020, it was the way we handled it and came back, which allowed us to continue building what we had started in ’19 and ’20. If you look at ’21, you see a huge ramp up of our results after Watkins Glen (in late June). We finally got to go back to testing and learning and getting back in the swing of things.”

After winning the 2022 Rolex 24 and the GTD Pro championship with Pfaff, its trio of Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr moved on to Porsche Penske Motorsport in GTP. It’s another sign of Pfaff’s appeal to world-class drivers.

“They want our car,” Bortolotti said. “I feel this pressure that these guys are finding me on Instagram and DM’ing to request us. That’s kind of cool. You have the seat that everyone is wanting.”

He believes the team’s success of as a customer team that can beat factory-backed operations is a preview of the future in GT professional racing.

“They’re spending how many of millions to compete, and we’re paying them to do it,” Bortolotti said. “So from a business standpoint, it’s quite attractive for them to be in this situation.

“I think the days of a full factory effort, as financial changes happen in a global economy, are numbered. The way we’ve done it with commercial support and raising money and partnering with a factory where they put some in, we put some in. I think that’s truly the way forward in pro level GT racing because there is something to sell. There is no reason for one manufacturer to have to pay for it all themselves. It doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day if one person is spending $5M to go racing.”

The team will have a factory-level talent with the return of Vanthoor as its endurance driver in a lineup that also includes Patrick Pilet (a 2015 GTLM champion and 2014 Rolex 24 winner) and Klaus Bachler. In addition to new drivers, the team also has a new car in the Porsche 911 GT3 R (992).

There was no bitterness over a reunion between the team and Vanthoor, who was lobbying Bortolotti to return just months after his heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Rolex 24.

Daytona is the only long-distance race missing from the CV for Vanthoor, who has won the 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and Nurburgring. The Belgian driver told NBC Sports he “cried like a baby” on the cooldown lap and then needed 10 minutes alone to regain composure.

But he then sent congratulations to his former and future team.

“With Mathieu and Pfaff, that was the first thing I did was congratulate them and give them a handshake because they are very good friends,” Vanthoor said. “And we were there trying to win and they fair and square won. There’s nothing to be angry about; I have a ton of respect for them. And that was it.

“There were no hard feelings. I was very happy for Pfaff to win it.”

Bortolotti said Vanthoor requested a spreadsheet with mugshots of all the Pfaff team members so he could greet everyone by name upon his return.

“After (the 2022 Rolex 24), I gave him a big hug, and I was heartbroken for him because I knew how bad he wanted it, how hard he tried and how great a fight he put up,” Bortolotti said. “I’m excited to have him back. He’s a great guy. We want redemption for him as a team as much as he wants redemption for the finish last year.

“It’s almost been a cool way to motivate our guys to try to do it again because we got it last year, let’s get it for Larry this year. We’re extremely motivated to get him his Rolex this year because we get ours last year.”