Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. This week, it’s a doubleheader: Andretti Autosport drivers Zach Veach (IndyCar) and Dalton Kellett (Indy Lights) visited Portland and explained their backstories as well as what the future of IndyCar’s ladder system could be.
Zach, can you tell us how you got to where you are today? I understand a pastor played a big role in you finding a ride?
Veach: I was 4 years old and I told my dad I wanted to be an IndyCar driver. He kind of giggled, because it’s like, “He’ll want to be an astronaut next week.” But I never changed my mind. At the time, he was a national champion of truck and tractor pulling, so I was constantly traveling around the country with him. It took me the next eight years to finally get him convinced. I told him, “If I don’t get started soon, it’s going to be too late.”
That really hit a chord in his heart, because he decided to quit his dream and sell his truck, his transporter, everything, so we could afford to buy a go-kart and go racing.
I started racing go-karts when I was 12. Through some hard luck and things, by the time I was 15, I got contacted by Andretti Autosport to join Sage Karam in USF2000. So that was my start on the Mazda Road to Indy. I spent two years in USF2000, one year in Pro Mazda, then I did two years with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights — in 2013 and 2014. I came close to winning the Lights championship in 2014, but had a mechanical failure at Sonoma, the last race, which kind of took a lot of us out of it.
Then 2015 was kind of a hard year. That’s when I broke my hand and didn’t have the sponsorship, so I was sitting kind of on the sidelines trying to figure out how to be in the sport. That’s when I started by broadcasting career and got to work with IndyCar Radio and all them.
Luck kind of came back into it. Brian Belardi saved my life and offered me a ride in Indy Lights for 2016. Had another close year — wins and almost won the championship but came out fourth — and then 2017 was just trying to find money again.
I was at the end of my rope, per se, and I was out of people to talk with, and I just had this gut instinct to call my pastor. He pulled me through some other things in my life and I was getting close to the deadline for the Indy 500. So I gave him a call and he gave me the connection to a local Indiana businessman.
Three days later, I had an Indy 500 ride. And about three weeks after that, we were working up the paperwork for my first full year in IndyCar with Andretti.
So there’s a lot of dark. There’s a lot of times when I really thought this thing wasn’t going to happen. But when you love something so much, you take every negative bit and you just keep pushing. I’m so thankful I did, because now I’m getting to live one of the best years of my life.
How close did you come to saying, “This is probably the end?”
Veach: I’d say three times. In 2014, after the Indy Lights year, I was basically all but signed with Andretti Autosport. We had a contract drafted up for me to run my first full year of IndyCar. And a week before testing, the sponsorship fell through and it all went away. So that was tough.
And then I broke my hand (in 2015) and thought that was it for me. And then after 2016, I really wasn’t getting things in place to go IndyCar racing after that and I thought, “Well, that was my last chance.” But I just didn’t give up, and I think that’s the key role. You have to stay present in the sport, you have to stay around. And you have to take time to talk to every single person, because you don’t know who is going to be the person to change your life.
That’s crazy, yeah. Even a pastor can be the one to change your life in racing.
Veach: Divine intervention. (Laughs)
So Dalton, how did you get started?
Kellett: Well let me hit you with the most Canadian racing background you’re ever going to hear. So I’m from Toronto, Ontario. The first thing I ever raced were these 90cc, two-stroke Arctic Cat (snowmobile) sleds called Kitty Cats — like for 3-year-olds. So my good friends and I, we used to race those on a frozen lake up in Canada around an oval our parents made out of milk boxes. So that was my first real race.
And then after that, I didn’t really do anything until I was 14. I always wanted to race. Those kids I raced the skidos with, they went off and raced go-karts. I was like, “Hey Mom and Dad, I want to race karts with Gary and Ryan.” After six or seven years of begging, they relented and let me get into it when I turned 14.
I raced go-karts in the Canadian scene for a bit, went over to Europe, raced there, moved into the F1600 championship in my last year of high school. When I went to university — I have a degree in engineering physics from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario — I raced USF2000 and Pro Mazda all through my Bachelor’s degree. Kind of bounced in between racing and school. And then I moved up into Indy Lights with Andretti once I graduated.
What’s the outlook now for you and what have you had to do to keep staying in the sport?
Kellett: Obviously right now we’re still focusing on the end of the 2018 Indy Lights championship. But looking forward, IndyCar is the goal. We’re trying to put a program together for next year. I just partnered with Ten80 Education, a STEM charity. We’re looking to kind of tie in an IndyCar program with those guys. We’re working on securing the (Indy) 500 first and then kind of going from there. There’s a possibility next year could be a bit of a piecemeal season — maybe a bit of IndyCar racing, maybe some one-off Lights races, maybe some sports car stuff. Of course, if a full-budget, full-year (opportunity) comes together, then that’s what I’ll be doing. But I think (mixing it up) is the more realistic outcome right now.
Both of you obviously took advantage of Mazda Road to Indy. It just came out Mazda won’t be sponsoring that anymore. Most of the people reading this are NASCAR fans, so could you give us a basic overview of what Mazda Road to Indy is?
Veach: Mazda Road to Indy was the first clear path for us young drivers to have a path to IndyCar. For me, I was part of the first generation to ever be on the Road to Indy. I was in the inaugural season of USF2000 in 2010. USF2000 was the first step out of karting, usually when you’re about 15 years old. Next step was Pro Mazda, which started out as Star Mazda at the time. That’s what I did when I was 17. And then Indy Lights, which is basically college ball — that’s the last step before you get to IndyCar.
So each step was so fundamental to learning. USF2000 is pretty much learning how to drive an open-wheel car. Pro Mazda, you learn more of your craft as you get a little more downforce. And Indy Lights, it’s all about learning how to work with an engineer and work with kind of a high-downforce car, as well as learning everything else you need to get that jump start into the IndyCar Series.
So without Mazda’s participation, how could that affect things for people who want to follow your path?
Veach: I hope something comes into place. It’d be great if we saw another manufacturer like Honda or Chevy — someone who already has that presence in IndyCar — come in and try to help the ladder system. I think everyone understands how important it is. We constantly have to have a flow of talent and new kids coming aboard. And I think people see it’s successful. Guys like Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, myself, we’ve all won at different levels and that allowed us to get to the next level and eventually to IndyCar. And that scholarship as well — it helps a ton for people to get their feet wet in IndyCar if you win an Indy Lights championship. So I really do think it’s going to continue to thrive under a new brand, hopefully, and continue to grow. Because to me, I think it’s the best ladder system in the world.
Is the way you came up going to be the way drivers come up the ladder five or 10 years from now?
Kellett: It’s hard to speculate that far in the future. Racing is obviously an iterative process — we’ll go through different iterations of support series and competition formulas and all that. But I think the big takeaway right now with this time of change on the Road to Indy is the formula Dan Andersen and their team has put in place clearly works, because we’ve brought guys like Zach, Spencer, Gabby, Josef Newgarden. Yes, the name may change and we’re all grateful for Mazda and their wonderful contribution over the last nine years, but I think that process and methodology will live on, because we know it works. We’re not going to throw away something that works. It’ll just live on under a different name.
I’m sure you get parents who ask you all the time about where to start their kids in racing. What do you tell them as far as advice these days?
Kellett: That’s always a tough question. Starting in go-karts is always a key way to get into it. That’s how I learned all my race craft. There’s other avenues: You could start at a racing school and then move directly into cars, you could start on the oval circuit — which I can’t really talk too much about because that’s not my background — but whichever way you want to go, there’s an entry point at the grassroots level. Even you don’t want to do it as a professional career, it’s a great family activity. Some of my best memories growing up were me and my mom and my dad camping at the racetrack, having barbecues at the track and racing go-karts. It was a lot of fun.
Veach: For me, it’s always been the Mazda Road to Indy if they’re in the karting ranks already. If not, I’ve always recommended Yamaha Junior Sportsman, because that’s where I started. But with the Road to Indy, it’s been nice to have that vision. When you have success and you’re so thankful to be in IndyCar, and I look back and I think, “What else could I have done differently to get here?” It definitely wasn’t a decision on which series to run, and that’s nothing I would have changed about my past. Each step taught me a lot. Granted, I learned the most in Indy Lights — that’s where I came into my own and started to thrive as a driver — but it’s the whole journey that taught me to be successful in any way.
Editor’s note: IndyCar recently issued a news release regarding a five-year plan to strengthen the Indy Lights program.