ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Once Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing starts his engine and takes the green flag for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, the 20-year-old driver from The Netherlands will clinch the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year Award.
“It will be great to get that on my resume – INDYCAR rookie champion,” VeeKay said.
It’s been quite a comeback for a driver who will be the first to admit he didn’t make a positive first impression in his INDYCAR debut in the Genesys 300 on June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway.
VeeKay crashed two race cars, one in practice and the other in the race, leading team owner/driver Ed Carpenter to lament that VeeKay needed to heed advice from his boss.
Apparently, the consultation with Carpenter worked. In the very next race, VeeKay finished fifth in the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As his confidence began to build, there were other tremendous accomplishments ahead for VeeKay.
He was the only Chevrolet driver to make the “Fast Nine” for the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in August. By qualifying sixth with a four-lap average of 231.114 mph, VeeKay became the fastest teenager in Indianapolis 500 history. He was the American Dairy Association Indiana’s “Fastest Rookie” winner, adding his name to the likes of some of first-year drivers who would go on to become Indy 500 legends.
On Oct. 1, VeeKay won the pole for the first race of the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR doubleheader on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“Putting it on pole in my first INDYCAR season is something to be very proud of,” VeeKay said.
The following afternoon, VeeKay finished third for the first podium result of his career in the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet, all but securing the rookie crown.
“It’s going to mean a lot to me,” VeeKay said. “Before the season started, it was a goal for me. It’s very special to accomplish it in my first INDYCAR season. You are only going to be a rookie for once.
“To get the rookie title, it wasn’t easy. I knew Alex Palou would be super-fast, and so was Oliver Askew. To beat all of those guys for the rookie championship was going to be difficult, but I’m really happy with my result.”
So is the team owner, who admitted he wasn’t pleased with VeeKay’s initial performance in June at Texas. Both of the rookie’s crashes at TMS were triggered by driving too low into Turn 2 on what was a challenging track surface. Hitting a slippery part of the racecourse sent VeeKay’s car into the wall.
The first crash came in practice, and the second incident was in the race.
“Texas was a big, big setback in my career,” VeeKay said. “Those were big mistakes, but they have shaped me into the driver I am today. It was my first really big lesson in INDYCAR. I really learned from that and showed that in the next race.
“Ed really helped me improve, and he had the patience in me to work through those mistakes. He wants to make sure I make the mistakes only once and never make them anymore. The whole team is very patient. It’s the ideal team for a rookie driver to come in and learn as much in one year and be successful, too.”
Carpenter picked former Indy Lights standout VeeKay for his team’s seat because he saw tremendous potential and speed. VeeKay’s talent may have been raw, and it was up to Carpenter and the team to develop him and smooth the rough edges of his driving style.
“To be honest, I was definitely hard on him in Texas,” Carpenter said. “We've made a lot of progress since then. He has really made a lot of progress in Texas. I haven't worked with a rookie in a long time, but I give him the same type of advice that I've given other drivers that haven't been there before or in a while.
“One thing that we also believe is he's an extremely talented driver. His natural ability is way up there with some of the best guys I've been around. So, it's more just helping him not try to get there too fast, make good decisions with his progression.”
VeeKay is Ed Carpenter Racing’s only full-time driver. Carpenter shares the No. 20 Chevrolet with Conor Daly, with Carpenter racing on ovals and Daly behind the wheel on road and street circuits.
VeeKay believes driving in every race in the same car has been a tremendous asset in his learning experience with the team.
“You get to stay in the flow and drive the same car all the time,” VeeKay said. “As the full-time driver, the car starts to be your own, and I feel very comfortable in the car.
“I’ve had good races, but like all of the rookies, we’ve been a little unlucky. I’ve made a few mistakes as a rookie. Next year, I won’t make those mistakes again.”
VeeKay hopes securing the rookie award is the start of bigger things to come.
“Next year, I will be even better in preparing and if we get to test in the offseason, I should be even stronger,” VeeKay said. “Next year, hopefully we get more podiums and maybe that first win.”