Join motor sports insider Nathan Brown as he recaps the first day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
INDIANAPOLIS – Dutch IndyCar driver Rinus VeeKay shaves every day, but not because he needs to do it. He just likes the way it feels, that razor scraping across his skin. Plus it makes him feel older, no small thing for the youngest driver in the 2020 Indianapolis 500. Born on Sept. 11, 2000, VeeKay is 19. He’s hurrying toward something. Greatness, most likely.
VeeKay was the lone Chevrolet driver to crash Honda’s speed party Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, busting Honda’s monopoly of the Fast Nine Shootout by qualifying sixth. He’s the only Chevy driver in the top 12.
“It doesn’t feel quick enough,” VeeKay said afterward, because it’s like I’m telling you: He’s in a hurry. He’ll probably break a few things along the way – he was literally the first driver to crash this year in the 2020 IndyCar series, a one-car accident in practice – but he’ll get there.
On Saturday he drew an early spot in qualifying, a lucky break on a steamy day. VeeKay went out fourth, before noon, posting the fastest time to date at 231.114 mph. He held first until Alexander Rossi, the 12th driver on the track, and slipped to fifth after one trip through the 33-car field. Series leader Scott Dixon went out two more times, and on his third try edged VeeKay for fifth at 231.155 mph.
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Ed Carpenter Racing driver Rinus VeeKay (21) makes his way to the track before qualifying for the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (Photo: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)
VeeKay never went back out, yielding the fastest time of the day to Marco Andretti’s 231.351 mph, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi, James Hinchcliffe and Dixon.
VeeKay is in a hurry, yes, but he doesn’t call the shots. He works for Ed Carpenter, see, and VeeKay has learned not to irritate his mild-mannered boss. That happened earlier this year, in Texas, and as VeeKay’s mentor and hero Arie Luyendyk was reminding him on Saturday: “Listen to Ed.”
Meanwhile, let’s listen to James Hinchcliffe, the popular Canadian driver, after one of the most harrowing days of the IndyCar season – Indy 500 qualifying day, when teams try to squeeze thousandths of a second from their four-wheel rocket ships:
“You have to be a special kind of crazy to do this,” Hinch was saying.
To which I say: Rinus VeeKay was born for this.
So fast, so stubborn
But he wasn’t born with that name.
His father is Marijn van Kalmthout, a successful driver on some lower European open-wheel circuits. Marijn’s son, Rinus van Kalmthout, was a karting prodigy who hit the United States at age 16 with a last name nobody could pronounce. He shortened it to the sounds of its first two letters – V-K – and “Rinus VeeKay” was born.
What do we have here? Someone made for Indy 500 qualifying. Whether Rinus VeeKay is made for 200 trips around the 2½ IMS superspeedway, we’ll find out Aug. 23. But qualifying is different – scarier, drivers will tell you – and VeeKay doesn’t do fear. In that, he’s aligned with the perfect team in Ed Carpenter Racing, whose namesake is a speed-thirsty, qualifying savant at his hometown speedway.
Carpenter, a Butler alum on a first-name basis with the bulldog mascot Blue III – Ed calls him “Trip,” while Trip calls him … well, Trip doesn’t say much – has won three of the last seven Indy 500 poles. He’ll chase hair-raising speed, same as VeeKay, but Ed Carpenter is 39. He’s seen a thing or two, and knows there’s more to racing than pure speed.
Which is why Carpenter was so angry in Texas.
This was in June, the first race of the coronavirus-affected 2020 IndyCar series, and VeeKay’s IndyCar debut. Carpenter signed him after VeeKay dominated the sport’s top feeder system, the Indy Lights circuit in 2019, with six wins among 14 top-three finishes in 18 starts. Carpenter saw in VeeKay a talent like he’d had in 2015 when he signed a 24-year-old named Josef Newgarden.
Today Newgarden races for IndyCar owner Roger Penske, and won series titles in 2017 and ‘19. Newgarden has something interesting to say about VeeKay, too. You’ll want to hear that. But first, the debacle in Texas.
VeeKay, running in practice during rookie orientation, was ahead of the field on his 12th lap when he got greedy around a turn, dipping below the white line and spinning into the wall. The crash was so bad, his car wasn’t ready for qualifying. He started the race in back and was working his way up when he got greedy: Passing Santino Ferrucci on Lap 37, he got too high and couldn’t keep away from the wall. He spun into the track, taking out Alex Palou and irritating his boss.
“Everything I told Rinus to do, he didn’t really do – being patient, be careful,” Ed Carpenter told reporters in Texas. “We’ve got a little work to do there on the sponginess of him, but he can drive the car. … He’s going to get there, but it’s going to be challenging. We still love him.”
He’s going to get there, but it’s going to be challenging. We still love him.
Sounds like me, housebreaking my puppy.
Champagne from a shoe
Before he could legally drink, Rinus VeeKay was chugging champagne from a wooden shoe. That was his celebration on the 2018 First Pro Mazda series, where he won seven times in 16 starts. They wear wooden shoes in the Netherlands, you know. Something like that. Anyway, he was drinking from a wooden shoe at age 17, even posting a picture on Instagram.
VeeKay still can’t legally drink, come to think of it, but he doesn’t wait so good. He even talks fast, and picked up the odd skill of being able to say words in Dutch backward as fast as forward. Hey, the kid’s 19.
But with youth comes resilience, like the way he bounced back from his Texas disaster by finishing fifth at the 2020 IndyCar Grand Prix at IMS. And how he bounced back in Iowa from a scary crash, one mitigated by the new aeroscreen that offers protection for a driver’s head. VeeKay needed that protection on July 17, at the first of two Iowa IndyCar 250s, when Colton Herta hit him so hard from behind, Herta’s car shot over VeeKay like a ramp – over his head, off the aeroscreen, into the air.
VeeKay emerged from that harrowing crash, which cost him another likely top-five finish, by saying: “Thank you to IndyCar for the great safety cell – and let’s go for it tomorrow.”
VeeKay raced the next day in Iowa, and was heading for a top-10 finish when a pit road miscue cost him two laps, sending him to 17th. The winner was Newgarden, who’d been asked about VeeKay earlier in the season and foretold the future. Newgarden had said VeeKay “reminds me of how I was,” and then:
“I think he’s going to tear too much stuff up, personally (to win Rookie of the Year),” Newgarden said. “I think he’s going to be fast, but it’s going to take some time. Don’t take it wrong; he’s going to be fast, but I think he’s probably going to have to learn some lessons.”
VeeKay’s learning lessons fast, packing mistakes and crashes and a whole lot of speed into his first six races. In the seventh race, the 104th Indianapolis 500, VeeKay will be the only Chevrolet with a shot at the pole. Skill matters in the Fast Nine Shootout, as does a car’s setup – and a driver’s sanity. And what was it James Hinchcliffe was saying?
You have to be a special kind of crazy to do this.
Buckle up. Rinus VeeKay is 19, he’s in a hurry, and he’s going for the Indianapolis 500 pole.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.