INDIANAPOLIS — Rinus VeeKay edged out Alex Palou for the Rookie of the Year Honors in the NTT IndyCar Series a year ago. Now, both are back as sophomores for 2021. But, while VeeKay remains with Ed Carpenter Racing for another go of it, Palou shifts from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing. One would think that Palou should have the better season with having what most would consider a better car.
Each want that first win. Each want to be improved. Each know that the chance of winning only heightens from last year to this.
“I don’t think it’s the expectations,” Palou said. “I don’t think that in the sport world we have to have expectations. I don’t like to have expectations. I like to have targets. I think it’s better to have the target to be winning and not to have the expectation to be winning because we are like 25 drivers. Everybody wants to be winning and everybody would expect to be winning.
“Yeah, the target is to win some races, to fight for the championship. We know we have the resources. We know that we have all the engineers, all the mechanics, the crew chief. We know we have the car. We know we have the sponsors. And we know we have everything to win. Now it’s all up to us.
“I think this year there’s, like, 12 drivers that are in the same position, with really good cars, some experience and with the hunger to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll try to make it.”
Palou, says the move to CGR is all that he’s ever wanted. He’s just wanted to be in a position to be part of a winning team, a historical team, and to be in the No. 10 is just amazing to him. He cites that the car has so much history behind it, so many like races and championships. It’s amazing to be a part of us.
With that then comes pressure. Now that you have a top ride, it’s time to win. Remember, he’s just in his second season. He says that having the rookie season behind him in learning the tracks was big, but the time is to win now.
Does the pressure get to him? He says it’s actually the opposite.
“That pressure has been with me since I was six years old and I started racing in go-karts. That pressure of winning, you have it every year. It’s not changing now. I feel less pressure now. I have the car to do it. I have the people to do it. It’s not the pressure of doing something crazy.
“The guy I’m going to race with, Scott Dixon, he won four races last year. They are giving me the resources to do it, so it’s up to me.
“The pressure of winning, that’s racing, and you have to win to be able to race another year. That’s been always with me, and it doesn’t change this year. If so, it makes it a bit easier just because it’s the first time in my life that I am in a big team.
“I think it’s the opportunity that you search since you start on karting,” said the Spaniard. “But then when you move up, that’s the dream. That’s the biggest dream. It’s amazing to have the opportunity this early.
“I think having a rookie year, that’s going to help a lot personally, mainly because I don’t have to worry like the basic things about how is the weekend schedule, like what do we have to do during a weekend, what’s the new tracks I have to be. I’m still going to have some new tracks to learn, but there’s going to be less than in 2020 for sure.
“I just think I’m a bit more prepared for sure. I have a better car. I have better data because now I have three teammates. Last year I had only one, so I have more information. One of them is a six-time INDYCAR champion, the other is a seven-time NASCAR champion, and then there’s Marcus and Tony, as well, depending on the race.
“Yeah, I think I have everything ready and set to have a good year.”
For VeeKay, his season is all about continuity. He has the same car, the same teammates, the same boss. His second year in INDYCAR is about improving from his first.
“I’m a whole different driver now,” said the Dutch driver. “Of course I only had Road to Indy experience before my rookie season started, but now I have I think it’s 14 INDYCAR races under my belt.
“Yeah, it’s something I’m very happy with and I can really — I could already see last season that throughout the season I made so much progress. Yeah, I think we had a very steep learning curve last year, and my job is to make sure that steep learning curve keeps staying as steep as it is now throughout the season.”
As to that progress? What changes did he notice that he had to make between seasons?
“Well, I found out that finishing a race is quite important, so I will always race as hard as I can, as fair as I can,” said VeeKay. “But definitely don’t take any risk, any unnecessary risk.
“Beginning of the season I was just really aggressive. Came away with it a few times, but also in Texas it was just too much. I definitely learned a lot from those races, and yeah, it made me a complete driver.
“I think now, yeah, I’ll have to make sure I keep it all going, and yeah, finish as well as possible every race.”
VeeKay, says that another aspect that he could be better is just his commitment levels. You don’t know what you don’t know as a rookie. Now that he’s experienced it, he says that he can give more to this season.
“Well, I think of course full commitment. It’s not just something that you’re driving INDYCAR. You just really have to give it everything, in your personal life, but in any way possible.
“Coming into the race weekends, it’s not just another race weekend. We’ve got to make sure I’m fully prepared. I know everything that the engineers know from past years, even though I’ve maybe done no races on that track. But there’s data from before.”
He says that his advisor, Arie Luyendyk Sr., noticed that the aggression level could be tempered down too.
“Well, being a little too aggressive on an oval,” VeeKay said on what Luyendyk has told him. “It’s basically always that because he’s the king at that. And yeah, just little things that — little tricks that save you a lot of time on ovals, like with setting up the car and feeling what’s the car going to do, because you don’t have a lot of time when you’re coming to the race. And obviously setup is so important. If you can really maximize that time, yeah, it’s super valuable.”
His owner Ed Carpenter, said that VeeKay has grown a lot since that aggression got the best of him in Texas.
“You never know fully what to expect,” Carpenter said of getting a rookie driver. “Based on what we had seen with his talent and ability prior to Texas, I was fairly confident in where his potential was.
“That’s what was so frustrating about Texas for a lot of reasons. We had talked about a lot of things, and that definitely didn’t go to plan. The best part about that was I had my public reaction, which was actually better than my private reaction to Rinus. But his ability to respond, to realize his mistakes, have ownership of his mistakes and move forward, I think you saw him get stronger and stronger as the season went on.
“He’s still 20. He’s got a lot to learn. He knows that. But he works extremely hard on the track, off the track, and I have no doubt we’re going to continue to see his ability to show his talents on a more consistent basis. Hopefully we’ll be winning races together soon.
“I think coming in last year as a rookie, as prepared as you are, it’s still always a giant jump from Lights to INDYCAR. He had been to a lot of the tracks, hadn’t been to a lot of the tracks, getting to know the team. The cars are more complicated. There’s a lot more things that we can do to these cars than anything he’s ever driven. A lot of that first year is just learning to communicate and for him to speak our language within the team.
“All of that he’s comfortable with now. He’s been involved in knowing what we’re developing and what we’re trying to accomplish with areas of improvement as a team and for him personally, having had a season to evaluate all those things for him.
“I think that’s natural as you develop as a driver, to have some more command. That comes with being comfortable in your own environment and just understanding the flow of the season and what we’re trying to do.
“He’s definitely showing growth. That’s great. There’s still a long ways to go. Hopefully we’ll have a successful year.”
VeeKay hopes that he can be a frontrunner regularly in 2021 too. He hopes that he can be one of the favorites every race. The goal is a consistent top five contender.
“Once you’re in that position, I think there will — in those 17 races, there will be an opportunity where you can go for that race win where everything goes your way,” continued VeeKay. “We just have to make sure we have the pace. I know we’ve got the strategies, and just me being the driver I am that got a podium in Indy, and yeah, well, the driver I was last year.
“I think if I just keep doing what I’m doing and have the team keep putting in the work that they did in the off-season, I think we can really run at the front, and yeah, hopefully go for podiums.
“Hopefully that first win, that’s something I really want to go for. We’ll see how that goes. But yeah, I’m fully committed for the season.”