until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


How Indy’s most unlikely rookie excelled

by Matt Beer
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

There were plenty of shocks over the course of the Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend, but only one Chevrolet runner making it into the nine-car shootout for pole position has to be one of the biggest.

The fact that it was rookie driver Rinus VeeKay, not known for his qualifying prowess, makes it even more outrageous.

Son of BOSS GP racer and ex-Benetton F1 car owner Marijn van Kalmthout, VeeKay adopted his revised surname on arriving in the States in 2017 when he joined the Road to Indy ladder in search of an IndyCar future.

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He finished second to Oliver Askew both in USF2000 in his first year in America and in Indy Lights in 2019, sandwiching a championship-winning season in 2018 in Pro Mazda.

There’s a bit of a misconception around VeeKay’s IndyCar deal to join Ed Carpenter Racing, painted by some as a pay driver cruelly pushing out the talented and underfunded American Spencer Pigot. But although VeeKay does bring some budget, it’s not enough to fund a full IndyCar programme and he’s far from the stereotypical pay driver in terms of results and experience.

VeeKay’s got many attributes, but one of the best is being able to jump into varying levels of machinery and be almost immediately quick through his natural feel.

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That’s certainly been the case at Indy this year, where he has qualified fourth while three-time polesitter Ed Carpenter – VeeKay’s team boss – will start 16th and his other team-mate Conor Daly is 18th.

It was a shock to some looking back at VeeKay’s oval debut.

Not since 2008 has the IndyCar season featured three ovals preceding the Indy 500, with most recent years having the Brickyard as the first oval of the year. That’s a big challenge for rookies.

However, the 2020 crop has had Texas and two Iowa short-oval races to prepare, and that may be where VeeKay’s success at Indy starts.

Despite having three years of experience in the States and on ovals, VeeKay got too low down on the race track in practice at Texas and crashed his car. Definitely not the way you want to start the season.

Then, early in the race itself he got too high, and crashed out – this time taking fellow rookie Alex Palou – in his first season of oval racing and the only other rookie to make the top nine at Indy – out of the race.

VeeKay got a stern talking to from Carpenter, who said that the only piece of advice he’d given VeeKay was not to get too high up the racetrack and that is exactly what he had done. Carpenter was furious.

Perhaps getting those crashes and that learning experience out of the way has created a more rounded driver ahead of what is IndyCar’s biggest challenge at Indy.

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“Yeah, it’s very valuable for me especially for a rookie,” said VeeKay when asked by the Race about the effect of three ovals prior to the 500 aiding his pace.

“Indy is such high speed, such importance, that it’s nice to have some oval experience. Just some reference to something you’ve done before so it’s not going to be the first time in an IndyCar on an oval at IMS.

“Of course, Texas has been tough it’s been my biggest setback in my career. But it’s also been the biggest lesson. So I’ve really learned from it, I’ve matured from it and I think I’m a whole different person in Indy right now.”

It’s hard to argue with him, the VeeKay we see at Indy really is completely different to the one we’ve known in the past.

For a start, VeeKay isn’t usually a fast qualifier. His racecraft is exceptional, as anyone who saw his overtake on Simon Pagenaud around the outside of the Carousel at Road America would have seen.

But as a rookie when there are so many strong cars to fight, qualifying outside of the top 11 in all six races isn’t going to help. Aside from a fifth place at the Indianapolis road course with some clever tyre strategy, VeeKay hasn’t finished better than 13th.

There’s been some bad luck, but race results start with qualifying well and that’s something that really hasn’t been an issue for him at Indianapolis.

After his qualifying run, it was fitting that Arie Luyendyk should be the first person to greet VeeKay.

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Dutch-born Luyendyk moved to the States much later in life than VeeKay, but was rookie of the year at Indy in 1985. He won the 1990 and 1997 500s (pictured below) and set a number of speed records in the 1996 event, too. VeeKay is running a split paint-scheme on his helmet this year, the left is the famous black red and blue of Luyendyk to mark the 30th anniversary of his first win and the right half in VeeKay’s style.

Luyendyk helped VeeKay acclimatise to the States and has influenced his career significantly, and he had one tip for VeeKay at this year’s event that the young rookie clearly hadn’t heeded in Texas.

“He was the first person I saw coming out of the car so that was great,” said VeeKay after his Saturday lap. “He was happy for me.


“Tip-wise, he has given me one tip, and that was just listen to Ed Carpenter. Ed knows everything about this car and is kind of the qualifying specialist from the last two years so I think that’s a very good tip he has given me.”

With Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson, IndyCar is as popular if not more than Formula 1 in Sweden now – and perhaps the Netherlands is set to pay attention to IndyCar properly again for the first time since Luyendyk’s career came to a close.

VeeKay’s performance won’t hurt the chances of that, and VeeKay is certainly patriotic. Max Verstappen’s meteoric rise has reinspired their nation to love motorsports again, and perhaps that is something VeeKay will feel and capitalise on.

In the meantime, his focus is on track and on Indy with only one qualifying session before the race. That innate speed and driving the car on feel has clearly served VeeKay well this year, after he confirmed that Carpenter and Daly are running similar set-ups.

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Perhaps VeeKay is able to feel the car better than some of the other Chevrolet drivers, all of whom are having to run less downforce to keep up with Honda’s qualifying straightline speed.

While VeeKay has experience of racing in the States, going vegan and moving to Indianapolis in the off-season as well as making the big step-up to IndyCar means there’s been a fair amount of change.

He’ll be hoping that his result here at Indy is the start of more change and better qualifying in the IndyCar series, leading to more running upfront. He’s clearly got the ability but is just lacking the kind of consistency that can come with more experience.

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