After calling his first-ever NTT INDYCAR SERIES race a “nightmare” in June at Texas Motor Speedway, Rinus VeeKay bounced back with perhaps the drive of the day in the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
VeeKay started 18th and finished fifth. Although Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud made up more positions by starting 20th and finishing third, VeeKay’s performance was more unexpected. After all, Pagenaud is a three-time winner GMR Grand Prix winner and the defending Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner and 2016 series champion.
Dutch native VeeKay is just a rookie and started his first road course race in an Indy car for Ed Carpenter Racing.
“I’m over the moon,” VeeKay said afterward. “I’m so happy.”
VeeKay will be the first to admit that his NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie debut June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway was embarrassing. He crashed in practice and again in the season-opening Genesys 300 race, both times making mistakes that team owner/driver Ed Carpenter had warned him about and that left the usually mild-mannered Carpenter annoyed with his rookie driver after the race.
What a difference a month made for VeeKay and Carpenter.
The “Flying Dutchman” was outstanding, racing his way to a top-five finish and setting his hopes for more to come next weekend in the doubleheader at Road America.
“It’s amazing,” VeeKay said. “Even this morning, I knew I had a good car. But we really nailed the strategy, and I felt great driving the car, too. I felt super confident and super controlled in the car.”
The key moment for VeeKay was a strategic decision that made a huge difference in the performance of his car. He pitted on Lap 5 and switched from Firestone black tires to the faster red tires. With the red tires giving me more speed, VeeKay’s Chevrolet raced through the field.
“We were the trendsetters with this setup,” VeeKay said. “Once I got into pit lane, almost all of the other guys went. It was a great call by them. It was super professional.
“I felt comfortable with the car. I started on the blacks and went the rest of the way with reds. It suited the car. The car/driver combination was incredible today. We made the switch around Lap 6, and that is what I planned to do with the team. It all worked out. With a little more luck, we could have had a podium. I’m super happy. P5 is the best we could do today.
“I’m very happy going into Road America and Iowa.”
The GMR Grand Prix was VeeKay’s road course debut in an Indy car, a racing venue that better suits his style. Perhaps the issue at Texas was simply rookie jitters, but on Saturday at IMS VeeKay looked more like a savvy veteran.
“I have a lot of experiences on road courses and at Indianapolis, but I have never run this many laps before at one time in my life,” VeeKay said after completing 80 laps on the road course. “It was tough managing fuel and tires and something I never had to do before. I did pretty well, and I have a great team helping me get to the front.
“Texas was really tough. It was a nightmare to me. Everything I didn’t want to happen, happened to me. It was all on myself. I had a good month to think about it and reset my mind. I live in Speedway, Indiana, close to the track and spent a lot of time with the team. It rewarded us with a top five.
“My dedication of the past month, along with the team, helped me get the opposite result that I had at Texas.”
Credit Carpenter with helping VeeKay learn from his mistakes at Texas. The owner/driver was able to use the past month to give advice to the young driver and help teach him the “do’s” and the “don’ts” of racing.
Combine that with VeeKay’s comfort level on a road course, and the result was far more positive than one month ago.
“Ed really let me know what I did wrong after Texas,” VeeKay said. “It was the right thing for him to do. He is the team boss and the leader. He made sure I learned from my mistakes. Looking at this race, I really learned from my mistakes. In this race, I made a few calls that may not have been the smartest at the time, but I’m still learning.
“To get a top five, I’m super happy. It’s an amazing weekend to start off my INDYCAR road course debut. I can’t wait to go to my favorite track, Road America, for a doubleheader next week.”
After Saturday’s race, instead of a stern lecture, Carpenter was all smiles when he spoke with VeeKay.
“Ed was happy,” the driver said. “He was satisfied with what he told me to do, and at Texas I didn’t do what he told me. Now, I did everything he asked me to do. This showed that I listened to him and I wanted to improve. I am showing that I’m ready for INDYCAR with the big boys.”