How I Got Here: Zach Veach and Dalton Kellett

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.

12 Questions with Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi prepares to make laps during Bump Day for the Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Action Sports Inc.)

The series of weekly driver interviews continues this week with Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner. Rossi, who drives for Andretti Autosport, enters this year’s Indy 500 ranked second in the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings. I spoke with Rossi during a promotional tour Tuesday in Portland. (This interview was recorded as a podcast but is transcribed below for those who prefer to read.)

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Never, really. Unless it’s a bad day. And then I don’t think it’s dreams, it’s just not being able to sleep — because you’re constantly replaying what happened and what went wrong. But I never have the good dreams about racing.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

I don’t think so. The result is what it is. I think if it’s someone you have a good relationship with off-track, you’ll probably talk to them. But if you don’t, then no.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

The biggest compliment someone could give me is probably that you’re a good racing driver but also a good person. As much as we define ourselves as race car drivers, outside of that we’re just normal people and human beings who are trying to do good things in the world.

4. IndyCar comes to you and says, “Hey, we are bringing a celebrity to the race and we’re wondering if you have time to say hi.” Who is a celebrity you’d be really excited to host?

Ryan Reynolds.

You didn’t have to think about that for very long.

Nope. Deadpool. He’s pretty cool.

5. In an effort to show they are health-conscious, IndyCar offers the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for a month. Would you do it?

I don’t know that it’s a big enough advantage to go vegan, so I would not do it. I like meat — I eat meat pretty much every day, so I don’t think I could give that up. Conor (Daly) would. Conor is a part-time vegan. So I think he’d probably be the first to go for that.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I have picked a random race from your career and you have to guess where you finished. This is the 2015 Formula One Mexico Grand Prix. Do you remember where you ended up?


That is correct! Are you good at remembering races?

I’m pretty good at remembering races, yeah. That one I wasn’t as sure of as other ones, but obviously I had a pretty good idea.

What were those days in F1 like for you?

Awesome. I mean, that was my dream. That was what I had worked to do for 15 years. The fact I finally got the opportunity to be a Grand Prix driver — although it was only for five races — was pretty special. Regardless of the fact we didn’t have a competitive car to win races, that was a dream come true for me. I’ll definitely cherish those memories.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I have a lot of respect for Jay-Z, so we’ll go with him. Just him as a businessman in general. Beyond his rapping, just him as a brand is pretty amazing. It’s something I think a lot of people can aspire to be like him.

8. Who has the most punchable face in IndyCar?

Oh, do you want a list? (Smiles)

If you have one.

That’s a mean question. We’ll go with Charlie (Kimball).

Just because of his face, or do you actually want to punch him?

I don’t want to punch Charlie. He’s just got that look about him.

9. IndyCar enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your strategist, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

Well, I feel like Tom Hanks should be the spotter because he’d be the most analytical. Considering the relationship you have with (spotters), you’re kind of putting your life in their hands in a remote way.

Then LeBron is going to be a better strategist than Taylor Swift, and I also think it would be pretty cool to talk to him during a race. He’s the one you’re bouncing ideas off of, so that’d be great. He’s the king.

Then that leaves Taylor as a motorhome driver, which would mean my motorhome didn’t get anywhere, I don’t think. I wouldn’t imagine she’s that good at that — she might be! That might be very prejudiced and rude. She might be an excellent driver. But I feel like she doesn’t drive a lot of places — I feel like she gets driven. And hey, when you’re that level, you should (get driven).

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

I don’t know there’s a key, but it’s definitely something we all scout out. And of all places for there not to be an abundance of bathrooms, it’s the Indy Motor Speedway — which I think is ridiculous.

There’s as much as a panic to get to the restroom before the national anthem for the 500 as there is a panic getting into Turn 1 on Lap 1 of the 500. Like it’s ridiculous. I don’t understand how they think it’s OK to have the highest-attended race in the world and have like four bathrooms. Boggles my mind.

11. Carl Edwards used to do backflips when he won a NASCAR race, and IndyCar decides it wants something similar. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win?

Well, they would have to pay me a lot to break my neck. That would be a pretty high medical bill for them. So it would be a pretty astronomical number. (Laughs)

We also have a lot less height to start that from (than NASCAR cars). I don’t think anybody is going to be able to pull that off.

Yeah, you’d pretty much have to backflip…

…from the ground. Which none of us are doing.

12. Each week, I ask a question given to me from the last interview. Last week, I interviewed Erik Jones. He wanted to know if IndyCar is about how hard you guys can drive the car with all the downforce you have, or is it like it super finesse where you’re trying to get the car through the corners that way? (Editor’s note: The Erik Jones interview will run next week. The order was switched to get an Indy 500 winner as the 12 Questions leading into Indy 500 week.)

That’s a great question. It’s both. With the downforce on a high-speed corner, it’s more about who is willing to muscle it though the most. Even though there’s a lot of downforce, the car is sliding and moving around a lot. So it kind of rewards bravery and commitment.

But then the slower speed corners, because there’s a lot of downforce, it’s also drag. We don’t have a huge amount of horsepower for the amount of downforce/drag we create. So you’ve got to be pretty precise with it in order to get the power down quickly and extend your full throttle time.

It’s a tale of two worlds. I would say it’s more finesse required on a street circuit versus a short oval or a road course.

The next interview I’m doing is with a yet-to-be-determined NASCAR driver. Do you have a question I can ask him?

What is your opinion of Danica?

Oh man. I would love to know this.

Me too.