Zachary Claman is looking to take old roads toward a path for a new beginning.
On Tuesday, the 20-year-old Canadian was confirmed for a full-time seat at Belardi Auto Racing for the 2019 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season – the top step of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder sanctioned by INDYCAR.
Claman spent this year competing as a rookie in the Verizon IndyCar Series, making nine starts with Dale Coyne Racing. While the battle to find a competitive seat can be just as fierce as the racing on the track, an opportunity came in the form of driving for Belardi at the MRTI test at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week.
The chance to test for team owner Brian Belardi was long overdue. If not for Claman making the jump to Indy cars in 2018 after a two-year Indy Lights, it may have happened a lot sooner.
“Me and Brian Belardi have been speaking for quite some time about doing Lights,” Claman said. “Before I went to INDYCAR, we were working on something and when I had the opportunity to go to INDYCAR, that fell through. So we revisited the idea this year and it seemed like a perfect fit.”
After a season driving an Indy car, which carries up to 700 horsepower, adjustments were needed when climbing back behind the wheel of the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15, which has roughly 200 less horsepower. Admitting the transition back wasn’t “terrible,” Claman conceded there were “a few habits I had to get rid of from the Indy car,” to which he credited Belardi’s engineers for the technical feedback.
Raw pace has never been an issue for Claman, who has logged a total of 10 Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2017-18. He scored an impressive career-best finish of 12th place on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May, earning the right to stay in the car and replace injured teammate Pietro Fittipaldi for the Indianapolis 500. Claman proceeded to qualifying a stout 13th and finish 19th in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Claman said the decision to return to Indy Lights in 2019 “seemed like the right fit” for several reasons, perhaps none more so than it will provide a chance to continue his growth and sharpen his overall skill set.
“There are always things for me to improve,” he said. “I think mainly it is going be starting up front and working on my qualifying pace. I’ve had strong race pace throughout my whole Lights career but haven’t nailed qualifying. That will be my main focus to start the year.”
His Indy Lights date to 2016 with Juncos Racing, where Claman collected three top-five finishes and placed ninth in the championship as a rookie. The following year, he took a seat at Carlin and collected his first win at Road America (Race 2) and followed up with three additional podiums en route to fifth in the final standings.
When the possibility of returning the Indy Lights began to materialize, Claman’s focus was on Belardi. One of the most respected teams in the paddock, it boasts a strong resume of success, including a driver’s championship with Gabby Chaves in 2014 and a team title in 2017.
“Belardi is a proven team who has won before,” Claman said. “They have a proven track record of getting drivers to INDYCAR and keeping them there.
“For me to grow as a driver and have a shot at the championship this year, I felt they were the best to do it with.”
Winning the Indy Lights championship comes with the added bonus of a $1.1 million scholarship, which guarantees the champ at least three IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500. While that dangling carrot is enticing, Claman isn’t going to allow the possibility distract from the job at hand.
“I would say going back to Lights is just getting me back on track to be in INDYCAR,” he said. “I’m not focused on what’s next after Lights. My only concern is to win the championship.”