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.
“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.”
John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.
The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).
Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.
Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”
Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.
“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).
“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”
It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.
Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.
“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.
Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:
Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.
The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.
Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.
“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”
In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.
Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.
“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”
Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.
In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.
“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”
The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
FINAL FINISHING ORDER:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.