IndyCar driver Rinus VeeKay enjoys memories of Wisconsin, Road America
Every step in a racing driver’s career can produce similar memories of expectation and progress, of career milestones, of wins and the ones that got away.
And then there are experiences not everyone has that stand out in other ways.
And sunset on the lake.
Those are the sorts of special memories that pop into Rinus VeeKay’s head when the NTT IndyCar Series heads for Elkhart Lake’s Road America, as it does this week.
His first full season out of karts and on the American open-wheel ladder came with Pabst Racing Services, the Oconomowoc-based team that considers RA its home track. Although their pairing was brief — a one-year mix of success and frustration — the bonds among VeeKay, owner Augie Pabst III and his family and crew remain strong five years and several series later.
“It was a lot of fun,” said VeeKay, 21, a third-year IndyCar driver from the Netherlands.
“I had nice teammates and something about that team … Katy, Augie’s wife, baking homemade cookies every race. I was definitely becoming too heavy at one point, but I definitely enjoyed that. I felt very at home, even if I was on the other side of the planet.
“I felt very comfortable and kind of felt like it’s not always been like that for me. So it was … very nice, very nice people. And it was serious back then, but I look back with a very good feeling about those times.”
The Road to Indy development series in which the Pabst team participates began practice Thursday at Road America and will compete throughout the weekend. The headlining IndyCar Sosio Grand Prix is scheduled for 11:45 a.m. Sunday.
Although such crossovers will happen on eight weekends this season, the realities of the business — the commitments and tight schedules — don’t allow VeeKay and his old friends to catch up as often as they might like. But they’ll be thinking of one another.
“It’s fun to see him where he is, see his results and see the trajectory he’s on and know that we played a part in it at some point,” Pabst said. “And the cool thing with the VeeKays in particular is they don’t forget us. They come and see us at the track when they can. … They’re still good friends of ours. It’s a proud moment for us as a team and a family.”
The friendship wasn’t supposed to happen.
A karting phenom — who at the time used the initials of his surname, van Kalmthout, as shorthand — Veekay signed for 2017 to move into cars with the European superteam Carlin as it moved into the U.S. junior formulas in partnership with Benik Racing.
But when that partnership fell apart, the 16-year-old driver and his family needed to scramble.
Pabst was on his way to a private test in Sebring, Florida, and then the series’ test in Homestead, Florida, when he got a call asking if he could get VeeKay into a USF2000 car at Sebring.
“I knew the name because I remember them announcing him as a driver, but we had no knowledge or expectations of was this guy going to be a really good pedaller, or where did he fit in, but we did have an open seat at that moment,” Pabst recalled.
“After Day 1 at Sebring we were all kind of dropping our sunglasses down, looking at each other, going, hey, this guy is going to be quick.”
The catch: VeeKay was scheduled to test with Newman Wachs at Homestead and then choose between the two with barely a week to go before the opener.
“It was a hard decision,” VeeKay said. “But I felt a very nice connection already with the team owner, Augie, and it was just more of a family. I knew it was very nice chemistry with the team.”
Pabst’s team is in the business of developing drivers, but because many are in their late teens, Augie, Katy and their children often become a sort of secondary family. The focus of the relationship is racing and professional development, but sometimes life lessons and experiences beyond the shop and racetrack become part of the package.
“My parents were always there, especially my dad,” VeeKay said. “I was 16 years old, and it was a lot all at one time. My dad always went with me and we traveled to all those cities together. My dad was welcome around the track. When my dad was around, it still felt like a family atmosphere.”
VeeKay typically lived in hotels when his father, Marijn, and his mother, Evelien, came in for races. They flew back to Europe during extended periods of inactivity.
Still, the young driver did spend some time in Oconomowoc, where Pabst’s shop and home share a driveway not far from Oconomowoc Lake.
“(We) took the boat out on the lake and did some stuff that as a Dutch person you don’t do so often,” VeeKay said. “Driving around on a dirt bike … all that stuff.
“It kind of reminded me of home, but there’s a lot more space. It’s not as densely populated.”
The Netherlands is a fraction of the size of Wisconsin but with a population comparable to Wisconsin and Illinois combined.
The vastness of the U.S. was one of the biggest adjustments for VeeKay. But he was where he wanted to be, having seen American motorsports as a land of opportunity not every aspiring racer in Europe does.
“I love IndyCar,” said VeeKay, who also liked the idea of a ladder system in which champions earned scholarships that helped them move up the following season.
“If I had the talent, I saw a real future in the U.S., which I have right now. You can have all the talent, you can be the most talented driver in Europe going toward F1 but missing out because you timed it wrong and there’s no seats for you.”
VeeKay’s first victory in the U.S. came 3½ months after joining Pabst when he swept a pair of USF2000 races during the June IndyCar weekend at Road America.
“For us as a team, a local team, and then some of our family history here, that weekend both of my parents were here … it’s an emotional thing,” Pabst said.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind those doors — late nights, missed dinners — that the general public might know, yeah, they work pretty hard, but this is our life. It really is. … When you have weekends like that, it’s fuel to the fire to keep doing that and doing it the way we’ve been doing it and sacrificing things the way we have.”
VeeKay won the season finale and finished on the podium in 12 of 14 races but finished second in the championship to seven-race winner Oliver Askew, an outcome that still frustrates Pabst.
Subsequently, VeeKay did one-year stints with Juncos Racing in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights before jumping to IndyCar with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2020. Last season he scored his first victory in the series on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
VeeKay comes to Road America 13th in points, having crashed in the past two races, the Indianapolis 500 (33rd) and Detroit Grand Prix (16th). If there’s a place to get his season back on track, perhaps it’s at the track where his first U.S. victories came.
VeeKay missed Road America last season after suffering a broken collarbone in a cycling accident, but he drove the Chevrolet simulator Wednesday to get ready to make new fond memories of Wisconsin.
“Learned a lot,” he said. “Ready for the real thing.”