“Your mind is telling you at first: you can’t go this fast. But you can”
For Rinus “VeeKay” van Kalmthout, last week was one of firsts. In Austin, the 19-year old IndyCar driver ran a test session together with all other competitors for the first time, allowing him to measure himself against the competition for the first time. During the test at COTA, he also drove an IndyCar in the rain for the first time.
And if that wasn’t enough, two days later ‘RocketRinus’ had his first taste of an oval, as he sped his ECR Dallara Chevy around the blindingly fast Texas Motor Speedway just outside Dallas. Trackside Legends contributor Jeroen Demmendaal spoke exclusively with Rinus VeeKay about an intense testing week in the Lone Star State.
“I hardly slept the whole week before the test because I was looking forward to it so much”
“Pooh… no, I don’t think so!” says Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) driver Rinus VeeKay when asked if he has ever driven so many laps in one single week. But, he adds with a smile: “On an oval the laps go a lot quicker of course, with less than 25 seconds per lap.”
Let’s go back to the beginning of last week. Together with twenty-six of his colleagues, VeeKay arrived at the Circuit of the Americas (or COTA) last Tuesday for a two-day test session. Traditionally, the annual Spring Training allows IndyCar teams and drivers to run against each other for the first time ahead of the new season. The weather was not much help, however, and the first test day on Tuesday almost rained out completely.
A handful of drivers, VeeKay among them, hit the track to get a feel for the circumstances, but soon enough the IndyCar officials pulled the plug on the first test day. Too cold and too wet, was the verdict. Seeing VeeKay on top of the timing sheets was neat, but the times were also without any meaning. He would have preferred to drive all day in fair weather, he says.
“I hardly slept the whole week before the test because I was looking forward to it so much,” says VeeKay. “So yeah, it was a shame that we could hardly turn any laps. But in the end, it was the same for everyone else. We could not even go flat out, we spent the whole session under yellow.”
An upside: he did have the opportunity to experience the sensation of 700hp on a wet track. “Awesome!” he says when asked how it was to drive an IndyCar in the rain. During the livestream, it was clear from the on-board footage from Alexander Rossi’s and Will Power’s cars that the drivers were struggling to control their cars in the tough conditions. “It was quite slippery indeed,” confirms VeeKay, “but that was also due to the cold. It was four degrees and wet. Under those circumstances, you can simply forget about getting heat into the tires.”
Because of the shortened schedule, ECR obviously had to make some changes to the original test plan, but the team managed to limit the negative effect of losing the first day. “All in all, we managed to do quite a lot of things on the second day. In the end, we were not fully pleased with the set-up of the car, but we know where the issue lies and what we need to do to solve it,” says VeeKay.
His relationship with teammate Conor Daly continues to be good as well, but the two drivers had little opportunity to compare notes during the test. “I hardly spoke to Conor to be honest, because we were both focused on putting in as many laps as possible,” explains VeeKay. “I got a tablet from time to time with some data, but I was mostly in contact with my driver coach Lee Bentham during the day.”
More frustrating was that a number of quick runs were ruined during the last hour, because of red flags for on-track issues with other drivers. As a result, VeeKay ended the day in 18th. “I had nine sets of tires for the two days,” he says. “I used seven of those, and spent three of them on runs that were interrupted by red flags. If I could have finished a fast lap, I’m pretty sure I could have been in the top ten.”
Another thing that didn’t help: his stomach started bothering him after lunch. A recent convert to veganism, VeeKay is still experimenting with his new diet. “I ate a whole plate of broccoli over lunch. Well, that was the last time,” he says. “My stomach felt bloated and it really bothered me during the afternoon runs. So I was driving a bit more sloppily, since it affected my concentration a bit.”
Nevertheless, both Rinus VeeKay and Ed Carpenter Racing are satisfied with the result of the test. Last year, the team struggled to put in competitive lap times during the Spring Training at COTA, which turned out to be a precursor to a difficult season for the Indianapolis-based squad. This time around, the team was clearly more competitive.
“If you look at who I managed to keep behind me: guys like Takuma Sato and Marcus Ericsson, who were both quite strong last year. So yeah, I am pretty pleased,” says VeeKay. “We still have plenty of time and I am confident we will find a solution to improve our set-up. COTA is a track with twenty turns and a lap time of around 1.45, so half a second is easily found when you get the car dialled in correctly.”
“In my first real run, I immediately improved on Ed’s lap time and I could run the whole lap flat out”
The first miles on a superspeedway
Once the trucks were packed up at COTA, Ed Carpenter Racing headed for that other Speedway on Thursday, located just outside the Dallas/Ft Worth metropolis. While the Texas Motor Speedway is less famous than its illustrious namesake in Indianapolis, it is definitely not less challenging. Temperatures were low around Dallas as well: on Friday morning, the attending teams were actually greeted by some frost. Apart from VeeKay, other rookies that drove at Texas were Scott McLaughlin (Penske), Oliver Askew (McLaren SP) and Alex Palou (Dale Coyne Racing).
Partly due to the low temperatures, and because this was a rookie test, the car was first dialled in by team owner and oval specialist Ed Carpenter – at Penske, reigning champion Josef Newgarden performed similar duties. “Ed told me: the car feels good and you can go for it,” says VeeKay. “But he also told me: build up your speed slowly. That’s what I also said to myself: no crazy stuff.”
It is almost impossible to explain to a mere mortal like this writer what it feels like to run a race car around a superspeedway at 215 miles per hour. But Rinus VeeKay gives it a go anyway: “It is going SO fast. When you first head for the turns, your mind is telling you: you can’t go this fast. But you can. So at first I was slightly tense, but I relaxed pretty quickly. I can tell you though, you really need that extra padding on the headrest, because it is impossible to keep your head up straight at those speeds. I could also feel how the G forces were pushing my face to the right – yeah indeed, a bit like those centrifuges used to train astronauts.”
Ahead of the test, VeeKay had already spent quite some time driving at Texas on the simulator at Chevrolet’s racing facilities in North Carolina. “I found out pretty quickly that this is quite a tricky track,” he explains. “For instance, when you exit Turn 2 too widely, you get off the banking and the rear of the car will become very light. But in my first real run, I immediately improved on Ed’s lap time and I could run the whole lap flat out.”
As the day progressed, the team slowly increased speeds. “The car was already very good to begin with and during the day we made a number of adjustments to further improve it,” says VeeKay. “At first I ran laps of around 214 miles per hour, but at the end of the day we decided to trim it out a bit more and take out some downforce. That took us a bit closer to putting the car in qualifying mode.”
In the end, VeeKay’s fastest lap with an average of 215.8 miles per hour left him fastest of the four rookies that were out on track. “A fastest lap of 215.8 on average is good, but I really wanted to try and hit 216,” laughs VeeKay. “But we’re not getting carried away. The race this summer will be very different. It will be a lot warmer then, plus we will have to deal with traffic and marbles.”