A kid who found out he’d be making his Indy 500 debut on Monday stormed to 13th on the grid during time trials on Sunday.
Zachary Claman De Melo, the 20-year-old native of Montreal, Canada, dropped the hammer in his No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to outqualify the entire three-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, all four of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entries, and five of the six Andretti Autosport drivers, among others. At the opening of practice last Monday, some wondered aloud whether the Indy Lights graduate would even make it into the show.
“The first time I got in the car I thought it would be difficult to be flat, but the car was so good, by my second lap, I was already pushing hard,” he told RACER. “The Coyne team has done a really good job at getting me prepared for this challenge.”
The surprise opportunity to participate in practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 meant Claman De Melo was behind the curve after most drivers were able to test on the 2.5-mile oval. As he sees it, it might have been a blessing.
“Not being ready maybe helped me in a way,” he added. “I was at home, training really hard, playing racing video games, and I didn’t get to do the testing here like everyone else, so I just came in thinking whatever happens will happen. I didn’t have any real expectations, but I think we’ve been exceeding expectations so far.”
The biggest news from the Indy 500 has been James Hinchcliffe’s failure to qualify for the race. As one of two Canadians left in the event, Claman De Melo hopes to give his countrymen another driver to root for in Hinchcliffe’s absence. And with so many Canadians or French-speaking members of the DCR team in his corner, there’s a strong feeling of support from inside the program.
“Me, my engineer Michael Cannon and [PR rep] Karina [Redmond] are from Montreal, Sebastien [Bourdais] and Olivier [Boisson] are from France, and we have me and [Schmidt Peterson Motorsports] Robert Wickens representing Canada, so we want to do all we can to give them something to cheer for,” he said.
In an interview with IndyCar.com last year, Claman De Melo spoke about the poignant reason he has the number 13 tattooed behind his right ear.
“My grandmother got freed from the Holocaust on Friday the 13th and the [concentration camp tattoo] numbers on her arm all added up to 13, so it’s always been a lucky number for me my whole life,” he said. “I’ve always worn it all throughout karting and all the series I’ve raced.”
Although he carries the No. 19 on the DCR Honda, Claman De Melo couldn’t help but smile while thinking about his grandmother after qualifying 13th.
“What are the odds?” he said.