In 2017 he was walking through the pits at Long Beach with a headset and microphone, giving reports and observations for the IMS radio network. Two years later, at the same track, he hustled to fourth place for Michael Andretti in the crown jewel of street races for IndyCar, finishing ahead of Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe.
That was the highly unlikely and even more enjoyable ascension of Zach Veach.
Veach was in the news this past week after being evicted from his ride with three races remaining in the 2020 NTT series. Of course, immediate reaction has been anger or sorrow, but let’s apply another emotion.
Be happy for the plucky 25-year-old, because nobody gave him much of a chance of ever making it to full-time status in IndyCar and he pulled it off for three years with perseverance and the connection almost every driver needs nowadays.
At 5’5” and 125 pounds and looking more like Malcolm in the Middle than Jud Larson, it was hard for the Ohio native to be taken seriously even though he won races all the way the ladder system. During practice at Indianapolis in 2017, he was standing in A.J. Foyt’s pit box and I pointed to Veach and told Tex that kid was going to be in his third car for the race. “B******, he ain’t old enough to drive a passenger car, and he’s too small to drive an IndyCar. Quit yankin’ my chain.”
Of course Veach did qualify 32nd in the Foyt entry and dropped out with mechanical problems after 166 laps. His career had “Indy 500 only” written all over it until the pastor at his church in Zionsville hooked him up with Dan Towriss of Gainbridge, a financial services platform and CEO of Group 1001, a billion-dollar insurance holding company.
Towriss instantly liked Veach (how could you not?) and a three-year contract with Andretti was struck, with Gainbridge also signing on for four years at the title sponsor for the Indianapolis 500. All thanks to a little divine guidance and hungry kid looking for a backer.
But racing is one of the cruelest bottom-line endeavors where even money sometimes can’t override results. Veach had such a promising rookie year in 2018 with a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh before taking a step backwards in 2019. Aside from qualifying at Indy and the last race at Mid-Ohio, this season had been a disaster for everyone at Andretti Autsport except for Colton Herta. Ryan Hunter-Reay is ninth in the point standings, Alexander Rossi is 12th, Veach 20th and Marco Andretti 21st.
Now there is nothing fair about Veach being bumped before his contract is up, especially considering all the good things he brought to Andretti, IndyCar and IMS. We all understood that without Gainbridge he wouldn’t have wound up with the Big 3, and we figured he was likely gone after 2020 if Gainbridge didn’t re-up.
As Marshall Pruett reported last week, we hear Gainbridge was given an option – stay with Veach but you’re not welcome back at Andretti, or stay with that team and be paired with Hinch or Herta for 2021. For Michael it’s nothing personal, just business – a mean business for sure, but sponsorship figures to be tougher than ever next year.
We don’t know the status of DHL, which obviously directly affects Ryan Hunter-Reay, but I did hear that Santino Ferrucci was approached about the No.28 car if he could bring money. It says a lot if RHR isn’t secure with his body of work, and he wants to keep racing for Andretti but five cars is an expensive proposition with only one car (Rossi with NAPA and AutoNation) seemingly having solid sponsorship locked up for 2021.
Andretti threw Hunter-Reay a lifeline 10 years ago and was rewarded with a championship and an Indy 500 win, and he fielded cars for Veach all through the Road to Indy until giving him a seat in the big time. Nobody was under the illusion that he was going to win races or contend for a championship, but I think Veach performed a lot better than anyone imagined. He’s a personable young man with a lot of heart, and covering his Walter Mitty ride was fun while it lasted. His was a feel-good story, and we felt good telling it. Now he’s exploring sports cars and we’ll see him in May, but he’s likely done as a full-timer.
Still, he ran with the big boys for three years and should be proud of the fact that he fit right in.