A weekly series providing an inside look at new faces on the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.
Zachary Claman De Melo knows he has some big shoes to fill, driving the Juncos Racing car that Spencer Pigot raced to the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship in 2015.
While De Melo may be new to American audiences, his name is well known among karting aficionados in his native Quebec and across Eastern Canada. The 18-year-old has won nearly everything there was to win during his seven-year karting career, including multiple regional and national titles. Moving up to cars last season, De Melo competed in three Formula Renault 2.0 series (Alps, Eurocup and NEC).
De Melo completed a two-day test with Juncos Racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway this week plans to contest the 2016 season with an eye toward a Verizon IndyCar Series career.
MRTI: Where did you grow up?
DE MELO: I grew up in Westmount, in the city of Montreal. All my friends are there, my family is there, and I started racing there. I played every sport I could play growing up, but the only one I played seriously was hockey.
MRTI: What first got you interested in racing?
DE MELO: When I was 10 years old, I went to a friend’s birthday party at an indoor karting track. I turned out to be pretty good at it, so my father got me a kart. I started practicing and I wanted to go every single weekend, every day I could. I started racing and everything carried on from there.
MRTI: Take us through your racing career.
DE MELO: I started in cadets, then moved to ECKC (the Eastern Canadian Karting Championships) for four years and won every time I did it. I also won nationals a few times. I decided to race in Europe because I thought it would be good for me, and I finished third in the world championships. I learned a lot at the world championships. Traveling around with so many different people from countries all over the world and getting the chance to race in so many different places really stands out for me. It was very different than what I was used to back home. The driving standard was a bit higher – back home, there were two or three people that could win a race, but in Europe, it was more like 10 people who could win. There are so many variables: the driver, the people you’re racing against.
MRTI: What got you interested in the Mazda Road to Indy and the Indy Lights series?
DE MELO: My coach knew Ricardo Juncos and he thought I could compete in Indy Lights. I tested an F3 car with Ed Jones and our times were similar, so I thought Indy Lights would be a good start. I did a test with Juncos and it went really well, so that’s when we decided to go ahead and do it. It’s a goal to be a professional racing driver and the Mazda Road to Indy really helps with that. Wherever I can go and make a career out of racing would be a great opportunity.
MRTI: You were at or near the top of the speed charts in the November Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of The Americas, how was the transition to the Dallara IL-15 and what did you think of the car at COTA?
DE MELO: The car was great and the team was really helpful. I couldn’t be happier with the team, they listened to my feedback and we got along well. The car has a lot more power than a Formula 3, but the driving is basically the same. You just have to get used to the downforce.
It’s great to be with the team that won the championship last year. It will be good to compare my data with Spencer’s and Kyle’s. Kyle has helped me already – I can learn a lot from him but hopefully I’ll start beating him by the end of the year!
MRTI: What are your expectations for 2016?
DE MELO: I think I’m with the best team and I’m confident of my abilities, so I believe I can challenge for the championship. We’ll see how the year goes, but I definitely think it’s possible.
MRTI: Favorite race track and what is your best memory about that track?
DE MELO: I would have to say Goodwood Kartways in Toronto. I grew up racing there; it’s only a five-hour drive from Montreal. There are so many familiar faces. Winning the Nationals there against so many good drivers is one of my highlights.
MRTI: If I wasn’t driving a race car, I'd be ___________________________.
DE MELO: Playing hockey. I played center for a house-league hockey team when I was younger, 7 or 8 years old. I decided to try out for AAA which was the highest level of hockey you could play at that time. I made the team, but when I told the coach I could only make a certain number of games throughout the year, because I’d started karting at that point, he said I’d have to choose between karting and hockey. I chose racing right away. Of course, now I wonder what would have happened, but I don’t regret picking racing! Now I just play for fun with friends. We go out whenever I’m home, wherever there’s ice. I’ll go and just play whenever I can, but not in any leagues anymore.
MRTI: Do you have a “hidden” talent?
DE MELO: I don’t want to sound cocky but I think I’m pretty talented at everything! I’m pretty athletic and I’m good at sports. I could work on my school a bit, because I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy sports. I play as many sports as I can and I go to the gym, but whenever I can get in the go-kart, I will.
MRTI: What do you do to relax?
DE MELO: I like to go fishing. It’s very relaxing and calm out on the water, which is nice because I’m usually doing something very high intensity!