HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Rinus VeeKay turned a negative first impression into the impetus that propelled him to the NTT IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Award.
He turned a less-than-stellar beginning at Texas Motor Speedway, when he crashed two cars in less than 12 hours, into the motivation that saw him become the top rookie during a tumultuous season.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, IndyCar officials banned testing to help minimize exposure risk of the virus and keep a fairly level playing field. Typically, a rookie driver needs all the track time and experience possible to compete against the likes of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi.
But in 2020, rookie drivers including Alex Palou of Spain, Dalton Kellett of Canada and VeeKay of The Netherlands had to learn on the fly during practice, qualifications and the race.
Because of the limited track time, VeeKay used the General Motors simulator in Huntersville, N.C. The Chevrolet driver for Ed Carpenter Racing made good use of the simulator, which GM makes available for its teams in NASCAR Cup, IndyCar and IMSA.
“The Chevy team really helped me,” VeeKay said. “Of course, we spent a lot of time in the simulator on setup work, not only driving. We tried setups in the sim, and we brought them over to the race track. It works exactly the same as in the simulator. It’s verifiable, you can try a lot, there’s no damage or anything. You can try everything in every way, so it’s a big advantage.”
VeeKay was quite surprised how well the information he learned in the simulator transferred into the real ECR Chevrolet in IndyCar.
“I’ve driven different simulators before, but the setups were never really the same, he said. “But then the one from Chevy, it just translated the same way from the simulator to the race track. So very surprising, very good.
“I think it definitely played a role, with the new Aeroscreen, which is very, very warm inside the cockpit. If some guys get fatigued and I can stay sharp, then of course there is an advantage.”
VeeKay started last in the 24-car field and finished 22nd in the season-opening race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8 but rebounded with a fifth-place finish in the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4. The Dutch driver started 18th and the team used an alternative pit stop strategy to help him leap into contention.
Once he was in the top five, VeeKay showed the promise and potential that led team owner/driver Ed Carpenter to hire him before the season began.
He was the fastest rookie in qualifications for the 104th Indianapolis 500 when he was 19 and started fourth. His four-lap average made him the fasted teenager in the long history of the Indy 500.
His best stretch of the season began at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway at the end of August when he finished sixth and fourth during the doubleheader at the 1.25-mile oval. He was eighth and 11th in another doubleheader at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course before the best race of his career in October.
That was the first race of the Harvest GP presented by GMR when VeeKay won his first IndyCar Pole and finished third during the first race of a doubleheader.
He finished the season 17th in the second Harvest GP race and closed the season with a 15th-place finish at St. Petersburg.
He was 14th in IndyCar Series points and that gave him the Rookie of the Year Award, the first for a Chevrolet driver since Stefan Johansson in 1992.
“I was minus-eight back then, so that’s pretty crazy,” VeeKay said. “I had to do a video for Tony Kanaan, everyone had to do that and I’m like, ‘Well, I actually didn’t really know him back then.’ I met him of course, but we were not personal or friends or anything.
“And then I’m just like, ‘Well, Tony you’re in IndyCar since I was like, minus-two or minus-three.’
“It’s pretty cool that I’m on that list now, and it seems that most of the rookies of the year go on to be successful in IndyCar. I’m very happy to be on the list and especially with a Chevy, which hasn’t happened in many years. I’m very happy with that, and I cannot wait to not be a rookie next year and fight with those guys again.”