Zachary Claman De Melo really is Canadian, even if it goes unnoticed sometimes.
OK, there are extenuating circumstances in the Verizon IndyCar Series, not the least of which is the high-profile Schmidt Peterson Motorsports “Team Canada” lineup of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens, who tend to hog the Canadian content spotlight.
But the shadow cast by the SPM duo is sometimes so long that Canada's largest daily newspaper ran a story in May lamenting that Wickens would be the only Canadian in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil when Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the race.
“Yeah, the Toronto Star didn't know I was Canadian,” Claman De Melo said with a huge smile.
“It doesn't bother me because I really enjoy proving people wrong. I want to be known as one of the best drivers in this series and I know it will take a lot of work and I hope I can be there next year.”
The 20-year-old who hails from Montreal took it all in stride at the time, tweeting a jab back that it “Seems like the @Toronto Star might need a refresher in Canadian geography! Looking forward to being one of TWO Canadians that will drive in the Indy 500.”
The journalistic miss could be explained by Claman De Melo taking over the No. 19 Paysafe Honda at Indy at the last minute following an sports car accident that injured scheduled driver Pietro Fittipaldi. Or maybe because Claman De Melo is only slated to start 10 of 17 races (the Indy 500 was not on the original list) this year as a part-time driver.
Most likely, it's because the Dale Coyne Racing rookie had the misfortune of making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut at the same time Schmidt Peterson signed high-profile rookie Wickens away from German touring cars. Wickens has grabbed headlines from the start, winning the pole at the season opener and contending up front most of the season to date.
Although Wickens thought the circumstance of Claman De Melo's late addition to the 2018 Indianapolis 500 likely had a role in the newspaper oversight, he understood exactly how the Montreal native felt. Wickens raced successfully for a decade in Europe and rarely received recognition at home.
“It's definitely tough and I've been there,” said Wickens. “If I were him, I wouldn't take it seriously. What I don't understand is why he's not recognized because he's been racing in North America his whole career.”
With the spotlight elsewhere, Claman De Melo sees an opportunity to work quietly in the background and focus on his development as a driver.
“My goal from the beginning of the season was to get better every race – not necessarily results-wise, but me as a driver” said Claman De Melo, who finished fifth overall in the 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires standings.
“We're coming to a point where we can start to challenge for good results and it's encouraging to me to know that I am still improving.”
His best result in six races so far this season was 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, a performance that helped earn him the Indy 500 opportunity. Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story. In Claman De Melo's case, they don't reflect his impressive performance and heartbreaking result in the early June at the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
After making his surprise oval debut in the Indy 500 and finishing a respectable 19th, Claman De Melo started 21st out of 22 cars at Texas but looked headed for a solid top-10 finish when disaster struck. As he attempted to go outside Will Power on Lap 205 for sixth place, the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet squeezed him and both cars hit the wall.
Power later admitted that a communication error by his team caused the crash and he took full responsibility. Claman De Melo ended the night scored 17th.
For his part, Claman De Melo's performance in the race demonstrated how much he's improved in the first half of the season and his response to the disappointment showed maturity.
“It’s just one of those moments – I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose,” a calm and composed Claman De Melo said right after the accident.
“I feel bad for him and I feel bad for me and the team. It’s a bad day, but I think I showed my potential. It was a great run up until that point. To do what I did today, from second to last to get up to where we were, it was looking like a possible top-5 finish — top-3 even — I can’t thank the whole team enough.”
Claman De Melo gets his first Verizon IndyCar Series shot at a short oval with this weekend's Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway. Qualifying airs live at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. Race coverage begins at 2 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.