This Could Be an Interesting Decision

Michael Andretti has his fingers in a lot of different pies. Not only does he own and operate a successful five-car team in the NTT IndyCar Series, he owns a successful team in Indy Lights – even though that series is on hiatus for this season. He also owns a team in Formula E as well as a Global RallyCross team. In the past, he has owned teams in ALMS, A1GP, US F2000 and Star Mazda. He is used to evaluating talent and making some tough business decisions.

He may have another tough decision to make at the end of the season, but it won’t be tough at all if Zach Veach has anything to say about it.

Veach drives the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda in the NTT IndyCar series for Andretti Autosport. He is in the third year of a three-year deal with the team. To say this is a make-or-break year for Veach would be an understatement.

Veach’s IndyCar debut was actually at the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in 2017. Ed Carpenter Racing’s JR Hildebrand had been in a last lap incident with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach, just prior to Barber and suffered a broken hand. He was not cleared to drive at Barber and Veach was tabbed as a last-minute substitute. He finished on the lead lap in nineteenth place – ahead of teammate Spencer Pigot, who finished twentieth and one lap down. That May he drove a third car for AJ Foyt, qualifying in the middle of the last row and finishing twenty-sixth – falling out on Lap 155 with mechanical issues.

I’ll admit I’ve been more of a critic than a supporter of Veach since his debut with Andretti in the start of the 2018 season.

Keep in mind I don’t really follow the Road to Indy. I know I should, but it just doesn’t hold much interest with me. I never followed minor league baseball, and I sure don’t follow any college football recruiting. There are just too many prospects to keep up with that, most likely, will never see the big leagues. I wait until they’ve actually made it to the top level of their respective sport before I spend any brain power learning about them. I had heard the name of Zach Veach, but I really knew nothing about him when it was announced he would be driving an Indy car for Michael Andretti in 2018.

I was not very impressed with his debut at St. Petersburg – a forgettable sixteenth-place finish. He followed that up with another sixteenth-place at Phoenix. All I really knew was that he was a rookie back-marker driving a car with a very ugly livery – a copper colored Group 1001 car. I didn’t know what Group 1001 was, but I knew their colors were visually unattractive.

But Veach opened eyes in the third race of the season at Long Beach. He came home with an impressive fourth-place finish and had everyone proclaiming him as the next great thing. He was suddenly being compared by some to Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi. I was withholding judgment.

The next few races saw mediocre results. They weren’t that bad, but they weren’t deserving of the amount of praise from those that had jumped on the Veach bandwagon. That eight-race span saw a best finish of twelfth at Belle Isle and a worst finish of twenty-second at Road America, where he was the last car running and one lap down. Considering he was a rookie, these results weren’t putting his career in jeopardy – but they weren’t clearing a space for him in the Motorsports Hall of Fame either.

To his credit, Veach turned it on over the next four races. He finished seventh at Toronto, tenth at Mid-Ohio, sixth at Pocono and fifth at Gateway. I was beginning to re-think my own reservations about Veach and was convincing myself that his supporters were right. At Portland, he qualified sixth, but was part of the first-lap melee in the chicane that ended a lot of days early. He got going again but finished nineteenth and a lap down. In the season-finale at Sonoma, he qualified tenth, but finished a disappointing fourteenth.

Still, when you looked at the last several races – you’d have to say that Veach had a successful rookie campaign. Even though he finished fifteenth in points, much was expected of Veach in his second season. No one was seriously expecting him to compete for the championship as a second-year driver, but finishing in the Top-Ten in the championship was a realistic expectation headed into 2019.

Instead, his second season was a disaster. He was driving a better looking car – with Gainbridge livery, a company owned by Group 1001. A fourteenth at the season-opener at St. Petersburg was not a good sign. Neither was a twenty-second in the next race at COTA. Two twelfth-place finishes at Barber and the IndyCar GP were the highlights of the first third of the season. Two eighth-place finishes in the double-header at Belle Isle showed signs of hope, but Veach hit the wall at Texas for the second year in a row and finished twentieth. He finished eighteenth at Road America and thirteenth at Toronto, relegating himself to being an afterthought in the minds of most fans.

A seventh-place finish at Iowa offered some hope for his fans, but he fell off the cliff in the final five races, with an average finishing position of 17.6. Ouch!

Instead of folks saying Veach was the next best thing, speculation turned to who would drive the No.26 car in 2021 – after Veach’s sponsorship deal with Group 1001 ended. Heading into a lame-duck season in 2020, not many people were giving Veach much of a shot to return to the team after his deal was up.

Last Saturday, I was watching practice for Texas on NBC Gold and I noticed Veach was consistently running in the Top-Five and was at times the fastest car on the track. I texted my friend and fellow IndyCar blogger Paul Dalbey and I said “Something tells me that Zach Veach at P1 won’t translate over into tonight” He shot back with “Zach isn’t as bad as you claim”. My response was “Convince me otherwise”. Paul never responded. I smugly thought that he had no comeback for that.

Without Paul saying a word, I was proven wrong. Veach qualified fifth, ran up near the front all night, led two laps and finished fourth. He was beaming after the race and he should have. He drove an excellent race and finally left Texas Motor Speedway that night with an undamaged car, for the first time in his short career.

So, which Zach Veach are we getting in 2020?

He has a month to enjoy his stellar drive at Texas. Will he pat himself of the back for a job well done and revert to his old ways at Road America, where he has career finishes of twenty-second and eighteenth; or will he serve notice that this is a mature and experienced Zach Veach that has responded from a sophomore slump in a big way? Time will tell.

Personally, I hope he can do it. I have a lot more respect for a driver that is able to pick up the pieces after hitting rock bottom and turn things around, as compared to a driver that gets a premium ride and squanders the opportunity.

Veach brought the Group 1001 sponsorship to the team through a personal relationship. It blossomed into Gainbridge signing on as presenting sponsor for the Indianapolis 500. Who knows what the post-corona economy will look like by the fall? Group 1001 and Gainbridge may not be in a position to renew their sponsorships even if they want to.

If that happens, Zach Veach has to force Michael Andretti’s hand and make him want him beyond 2020, just like he wanted Rossi to re-sign as his 2019 deal was coming to an end last season. Veach is not a former Indianapolis 500 champion and he is not a threat to win the championship. In fact, he has not won a single race. He is an extremely nice young man and he has a compelling story of being bullied in high school. Unfortunately, those things don’t weigh into a car owners decision on who will drive their cars. This is a results-oriented business.

Zach Veach has, at the most, thirteen more chances this season to get that first win and put together a consistent and successful 2020 campaign. That number may drop to ten if the west coast races don’t happen due to COVID-19 restrictions in California and Oregon. Is that enough time to salvage a ride and force the team to want you to come back? It can be, but he can’t have another five-race stretch of finishing worse than seventeenth.

Top-Five finishes have to become the norm for Veach, and not the exception. That needs to start in a little less than four weeks, with a double-header at Road America. When that weekend is over, we will have a much better idea what Zach Veach’s 2021 may look like. It will make for a compelling storyline throughout 2020 if Michael Andretti has a tough decision to make at the end of the season.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “This Could Be an Interesting Decision”

  1. I’m afraid an interesting decision has already been made. Come on Indycar. Do the right thing. Rehire Brad Hockaday. What you did was to jump in on the culture wars. Brad did nothing to justify losing his job in Indycar. He has a right to his opinion whether you agree with it or not. You as an employer have no right to dictate the political or social opinions of your employees. This is what happens in 3rd world countries. Indy car just hit a very low point. Is this what being owned by Roger Penske means?

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Sorry Bob…I couldn’t disagree with you more. It’s time for this country and this world to come together. He got what he deserves…there is no place for that line of thinking in our country anymore. Confederate flags represent all that is wrong with this world. Kneeling in front of the American flag is a peaceful way to protest police abuse. Good for INDYCAR for firing him.

    • Ah, come together by silencing dissent. Taking away jobs of people we disagree with. Where have we seen that before in history?

    • So now you’re the Thought Police?

      You snowflakes are something else.

      YOUR type of “thinking” has no place in a FREE society. Why not take your groupthink bullshit somewhere else….

      Phil Kaiser

      • I’ve got to make sure I’m getting this correct. The guy whining about the “Thought Police” ruining his FREE society is totally comfortable dictating what sort of speech is allowable in this forum? Makes sense.

        TODAY’s WORD OF THE DAY: Hypocrisy

        hy-poc-ri-sy (noun): the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

        Mr. Hockaday exercised his Constitutional rights when he posted his opinions on social media. What he failed to remember was free speech does not mean speech free of consequences.

        His former employer, Roger Penske (a noted major Republican donor of the non-snowflake variety), relies on corporate goodwill to fund the racing side of his empire.

        What Mr. Penske can not have is the person in the flag stand spouting off opinions that are 180 degrees from the public stances of the fine folks at Honda, Chevy, and Firestone to name just a few.

        I’d be willing to bet you could put just about any individual up in the flag stand and after receiving proper training; they’d be able to complete the tasks Mr. Hockaday was assigned.

        With all of the other things Mr. Penske has to worry about right now, why does he need an additional problem in his flag stand?

        As for Veach, I believe the cancellation of the Lights season gives him a little bit of extra breathing room as far as the Andretti side of things go.

        Kyle Kirkwood has dominated each of the first two steps of The Road To Indy. Now it appears that his presumptive IndyLights championship for Andretti Autosport will have to wait until 2021.

        As today’s post said, it probably ultimately comes down to Gainbridge extending their contract or letting the current 3-year deal lapse.

        Lets try to take it easy, folks!

        • I wasn’t “dictat(ing)” anything! I suppose you missed Mr. Fitzgerald’s authoritarian response to a previous message (that I was responding to) where he demands, “there is no place for that line of thinking in our country anymore,” yet you want to call ME out? You should at least be an equal opportunity hypocrite!

          So any monkey could do it, huh? Is that what you’re saying regarding being a flagman? What a nice person you sound like, fabulously elitist attitude you have there. Bet we could say the same thing about your job, eh?

          I can’t stand Penske, never could, so your analogy falls flat. And if his “corporations” and their “goodwill” preclude me from thinking or saying any way or anything I want to about our past history then I need to make a note and start digging into their histories to see what racist pasts THEY have, then boycott the hell out of them! And believe me, many of them do have racist pasts, just like folks in your family, my family, our families and many, many black families. You might want to delve into some actual history books instead of relying on emotions and media dis-information all of the time.

          And for all we have to worry about today, what with our country being taken over by 13% of our population, why are you coming after a responder on a blog, for Christ’s sake? Don’t you have a more important fight on your hands?

  3. So…what is everyone thinking on Zach Veach? That is what today’s post is about, by the way. – GP

  4. I’m with the group who thinks Veach is a very good driver, is affable, and can represent his brands and team very well. There’s little to not like about him.

    I also think that if nothing else, you should also pay at least a modest amount of attention to the Road To Indy. Understanding the paths of the up and coming drivers may give you added insight once they make it. Especially if the Indycar paddock is going to add entries to help develop their talent and a make a robust top rung of the ladder. Hard to argue that GP2 doesn’t also do this but I’d rather see a similar level native to the US to grow talent.

  5. If you drive for Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti, you better win races (or be an Andretti). Veach will be on another team or out of the sport next year if he doesn’t win.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    While I’m not betting on it right now, I could see Veach landing in the top 10 in points this season. At this point, though, podiums and wins still feel like parties he might sneak into rather than parties we expect him to crash.

    He is a solid driver, but like so many, he will stay in the series as long as the money is behind him.

  7. Zach had a stellar drive at Texas and I hope it continues. Last year was SO disappointing. He did very well in Lights and I admired his skill in his rookie season. I think his year looks bright, but the season is just beginning.

  8. Bruce Waine Says:

    No one has mentioned three Indy 500 winners were caught out of the Texas opener.

    The what if question rises to the top.

    If Sato, Rossi & Pagenaud were not displaced as they were in the Texas race, where would Zach have finished…….. Eight?

    However, Zach’s 4th place finish, minus Sato, Rossi & Pagenaud, stands in the record books.

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