In nearly 15 years of racing, Stockdale native Zach Veach has never been on a race track so close to home.
After three seasons as an Indycar driver, Veach is stepping back to turn his focus to other forms of motorsports. The decision led to an opportunity for Veach to return to Pike County Thursday afternoon, Oct. 15, to test the John Shewbrooks’-owned A79 410 sprint car at Atomic Speedway, 2535 Blain Highway, Waverly, on what is touted as the fastest 3/8-mile oval in the nation.
At 3 p.m. Veach was in Shewbrooks’ Waverly garage, getting the seat and seat belts fitted in the A79 car for his test. By 4 p.m., Veach, Shewbrooks and crew — Scott Cool, Trevor Ramsey, Roger Ramsey, and Andy King — had everything prepared, and off to the track they went.
Stepping out in the pit area of Atomic Speedway, a crispness was felt in the air and a cold breeze funneled through, dropping colorful leaves from nearby trees. The car was unloaded, prepped, and Veach was prepared for his first ever run in a 410-sprint car.
After his first eight laps on the track, Veach returned to the pit. When he cut the engine after his first go-round, he exclaimed, “That was awesome! I’ve been racing for 14 years, and that is the most fun I’ve ever had in a car.”
The crew continued to tweak the car after each of Veach’s sessions on the track. Each time Veach took the track, his comfort, speed and technique progressed. So much so that Veach took a chance on one of his sessions, riding high coming out of Turn 2 and spinning out. The car went on over the embankment, down the back side, across the access road, and into the guard rail.
Veach was unhurt, and the only damage to the car was a small dent in the back bumper. After getting the car turned around and back to the pits for another round of adjustments, it was back to the track for more laps.
Soon, with rain and darkness coming in, and nearly 30 gallons of racing fuel consumed, it was time to load up and return to Waverly. There, in the comfy confines of Shewbrooks’ race-dedicated garage, Veach took time to share about his journey through racing to this point.
“From a very early age, I always knew I wanted to be a part of motorsports. I think my interest comes from my dad (Roger) being in truck and tractor pulling (on national and world stage). But I always wanted to do it in a different way. I wanted to go to Indianapolis,” said Veach.
“When I was four years old, I saw my first Indianapolis 500 on TV and fell in love with that form of motorsports. I begged my parents to race from the time I was four years old until I was 12 when I had my opportunity.”
That opportunity came when his dad, Roger, decided to bring his professional truck and tractor pulling career to an end.
“My dad decided to sell what was his dream to help fund his son’s dream. So I started racing go karts in Circleville (at Circleville Raceway Park) right off U.S. 23. Three years after starting to race karts, Michael Andretti’s team picked me up as a development driver. Over the next seven years from 2010 to 2017, I worked my way from the very first rung of the ladder to Indycar.”
In May 2017, Veach had the opportunity to run in his first of four Indianapolis 500 appearances, joining A.J. Foyt’s team for that initial one-time run. But car troubles brought his day at Indy to an end earlier than he had hoped in that first-ever race. Then in Sept. 2017, it was announced that Veach had signed a three-year contract with Andretti Autosport, piloting the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda from 2018 through 2020.
After almost three years, it was announced in late September that Veach would not be returning to Andretti Autosport as a driver in the 2021 season. At that point, Veach opted to relinquish his seat to allow the team to explore their options with other drivers for the remainder of the 2020 season, while he explored his next path. Veach is hoping to announce his new deal later this month.
“We did three full seasons in Indycar and four Indy 500s, which were an incredible opportunity with the team Andretti Autosport and my sponsor Gainbridge,” said Veach. “Then as we got close to the end of the year, we realized we wanted to explore other things and different forms of motorsports.”
That led to Thursday’s sprint car session with John Shewbrooks Racing, coordinated through Veach’s brother, Brandon, who worked with Shewbrooks at the local atomic plant. Shewbrooks made the offer several years ago, but this was the first opportunity Veach had to make it happen.
“With me being in the heart of Indycar, I didn’t want to take the time away to do anything like this,” said Veach, who was under contract with Andretti Autosport at the time and encouraged not to take risks.
“Sprint car racing inherently has a risky nature to it, as far as people looking at it from the outside,” said Veach. “It finally worked out that I was able to get in contact with John, and we put a test together, for which I am extremely thankful. This is another box that has been waiting to be checked for about 15 years now.”
Veach’s time had been centrally focused on achieving his dream of making it to Indycar. Now that he has stepped away, he has time to refocus and change directions for a while.
“I spent the last 14 years of my life in a very narrow single-minded focus to get to Indycar and the Indy 500. I didn’t really try other forms of racing. I just stuck to the road to Indy. So now that I’ve checked that box, I feel that I owe it to myself to take a step back and try other forms of racing,” said Veach.
“I’m a racer. I love to drive these fast cars. It doesn’t matter what (type of car) it is. To drive a sprint car was amazing. I would love to get over in the sports car world next year and try some endurance racing. I just want to experience all kinds of racing. I’ve been lucky enough to build my name to where it gets my foot in the door at least and builds opportunities.”
After central Ohio driver Sarah Fisher made her way to Indycar from 1999-2010 following a racing career that involved racing at sprint car tracks like Atomic Speedway, Veach said the path had changed by the time he arrived on the scene.
“Sarah’s dad, Dave Fisher, built all of her sprint cars back in the day. He was basically who taught me how to drive a go kart and was my engine builder for karting in Circleville. Obviously sprint car racing and dirt racing is deep in their DNA,” said Veach.
“Unfortunately in today’s age, the path to Indycar isn’t the path through sprint cars. It is more the path to stock car racing. That’s just because we are losing more and more ovals in Indycar. Nowadays to be a good Indycar driver, you have to be a strong road and street course driver. The ovals are relatively easy to figure out in Indycar.”
The oval at Atomic was a new experience for Veach, complete with a lot of dirt and dust. Veach had conversed with Sarah Fisher before coming to Waverly for his test session and discussed some differences with her.
Without a dedicated track crew and water truck on hand at Atomic Speedway, the cloud of dust created by continuous laps made the experience more of a challenge for Veach.
“The dust was a little more than I thought it would be. After about five or seven laps, you really couldn’t see where you were going out of Turn 4, which was really daunting when you are still trying to figure things out. It is definitely the dirtiest I’ve been in my whole life, but I think that goes with the territory.”
Veach described his spinout on the high side of Atomic, as interesting to say the least. He certainly wasn’t the first sprint car driver to do that, and he won’t be the last, as veteran drivers have ended up on the wrong side of the embankment at Atomic Speedway.
“I had a couple of Nascar drivers tell me that if I didn’t spin at least once, they would be ashamed. It was cool. Fortunately, it didn’t damage anything. We took two steps forward, two steps more, and two steps more. Then we went too far, so we took a step back. That’s motorsports. You have to go over it to figure out where the line is. This (driving a sprint car) feels like there are so many options to figure out what you like and what works and apply it.”
Before the evening ended, Shewbrooks asked Veach to autograph a decal to put over the small dent the spinout created on the bumper.
“Last night (Wednesday before Thursday’s test), I was going to bed and thinking, ‘How is today going to go?’ The last thing you want to happen is to drive a car, and then think that you don’t fit in with that. After today, it would still take a lot of time to be a front runner in something like this,” said Veach.
“Being a racer means you can get into anything and still be a racer. That was fun to jump into something completely different. I’ve never been on dirt in my life. Within 15 laps, I was reasonably getting it. That was something I was proud of in my own way.”
Shewbrooks was thrilled with Veach’s brief performance, saying, “Zach ran great. He is race ready. I tried to make contact with him a couple of years ago. Recently, his brother mentioned to me that Zach would like to run the sprint car, so here we are. We had a lot of fun today.”
“I would love to thank John for this opportunity,” said Veach. “How cool is it that I get to come home to almost my home town with a home town person and his team to go out and drive his car? This is the first time I’ve ever come this close to my home town for racing. The closest I’ve been was Circleville.
“It was the purest form of motorsports I’ve ever experienced. There’s a ton of horsepower and you are fully in control of this thing that in every aspect you look at seems out of control,” said Veach.
“This is the purest form of driver induced speed. Indycar is very heavy on equipment and the team you are with, as well as your performance. In a sprint car, there is so much you are in control of like finding where the moisture is on the race track and different ways you want to drive the car because you have that freedom. In Indycar, there’s pretty much one way. You have to adapt to that way the best you can or you won’t be successful.”
One highlight for Veach of his 410 sprint experience was the fact that the car had power steering.
“There’s no power steering in Indycar. It is really heavy, like 40 pounds. There’s no assist,” said Veach. “With these (sprint cars), the steering wheel is so light, you hardly feel like you are working it.”
At the young age of 12, Veach felt like he was getting a late start on the road to Indycar, but in truth, his racing career is just beginning to take off.
“At 25, I feel like starting at 12 isn’t too late, but at 12 you are getting beat for a couple of years trying to close the gap with people who have six to seven years of experience. You have to learn quickly and be adaptive. You have to be okay with change and be moldable at any stage in your career. The moment you stop adapting is the moment you get slower. You have to be pliable,” said Veach.
“That’s the only thing I hate about today’s era. We’re all becoming specialists. If you race in Indycar, you don’t race in anything else. Look back at A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti in the 1960s. They were racing a sprint car on Thursday nights and then running an Indycar on Sunday. They were constantly driving different things, which made them so good. Now the window (of opportunity) is becoming so small that you have to dedicate yourself to one form. The gap gets smaller each year.”
Veach has an open invitation from Shewbrooks to drive the A79 when the opportunity arises. Shewbrooks’ A79 has been piloted by Brandon Wimmer all season long, but Wimmer has employment obligations and will not be racing for Shewbrooks in the final two races of the season on Oct. 31 and Nov. 24. Veach has since confirmed that he will drive the A79 at Atomic Speedway on Oct. 31.
Veach told Shewbrooks he would think it over on his way back to Indianapolis Thursday evening, returning in his special bright red R-Type Honda Accord. According to Veach, all Indycar Honda drivers receive a new loaner car to use each year they drive. He is planning to buy this one when the loan time ends.
Veach has had some memorable times already in his young Indycar career, including leading 14 laps in the 2020 Indianapolis 500, which was held on Sunday, Aug. 23 and run without any fans in the stands due to COVID-19.
“I remember they (my crew) told me when I came out of (Turn) 2,” said Veach of the brief window of opportunity to lead the race. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m leading the Indianapolis 500.’ I knew we were in fuel trouble and we needed a yellow. We took a gamble, but you have to take a gamble to win the Indy 500. Someone told me out of 950 plus drivers to start the Indy 500, it is only around 230 drivers, who have led more than two laps.”
Now the southern Ohio native will prepare to write the next chapter of his racing career, honing his talents for a return to Indycar someday.
“To have a name, my last name from this area, being in the history books for leading laps at Indianapolis is really cool,” said Veach.
“I still will come back to Indianapolis. I still want to win the Indy 500. I will make my journey back there eventually.”