By: Tanner Watkins
January 22, 2019 | 9:00 AM
Its only January, but Canadian driver Zachary Claman DeMelo already has his sights set on championship weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September.
On December 11, the former Dale Coyne Racing driver was confirmed to join Belardi Auto Racing for the 2019 Indy Lights season. This came after Claman DeMelo made nine starts in the NTT IndyCar Series last season with a best finish of 12th.
The move back to Indy Lights – where Claman DeMelo competed for 2016 and 2017 – signals an all-in effort towards returning to IndyCar full-time next year. First, though, the Montreal native must accomplish the one and only goal set forth by himself.
“For me this year it is kind of all or nothing: going for the championship,” Claman DeMelo told Open-Wheels. “I want to know that I’ve put everything I can into this year, and at least that way if we don’t (win the championship) I know I’ve done everything I can.
“But for me, it’s really a championship year. I’m going in there with only one kind of goal, and the goal is to win, get that scholarship, and go back to IndyCar to hopefully put together a full-time ride in 2020.”
In Claman DeMelo’s two Indy Lights seasons, he captured one win and four podiums across 34 starts. ZCD’s career best points finish came in 2017 when he slotted in fifth at year’s end for Carlin. After running with Juncos Racing in 2016, Claman DeMelo is onto his third Indy Lights team – this time with a burst of optimism.
“Brian is a friend of mine so it seemed like the right fit,” explained Claman DeMelo regarding the pick of Belardi Auto Racing. “They’ve done a great job in the past of getting drivers from Indy Lights to IndyCar with Gabby Chaves, Josef (Newgarden) and a few other guys. So it seemed like a good fit to get back to IndyCar.
“They are definitely a great team. They’ve been competitive in the last year and shown that they could win the championship, so that was definitely a big factor in deciding. I’ve just gotten along really well with the engineers (as well) so that was the main reason for choosing Belardi.”
While some may see the move back to Indy Lights as a step down from Claman DeMelo’s part-time role with Dale Conye Racing, the 20-year-old viewed his time with Coyne as a learning experience that has prepped him to seize the next opportunity.
“After being in IndyCar for a year, I’ve learned a lot being alongside Sebastien Bourdais,” Claman DeMelo notes. “Having an engineer like Michael Cannon, I learned a lot from him as well as watching how Seb works – from a guy who’s been in Formula One and won many championships. I kind of took away a lot of the things he did and tried to use it for myself to become a better driver. I just think I’m a lot more experienced now in terms of driving any different car.
“That’s the way I work, and its a little bit different after working with a great group of guys at Dale Coyne Racing. So I’m going to take away a lot of what I learned there and try to apply it to my Indy Lights season.”
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, Claman DeMelo’s fill-in duties for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi created the Candian’s most memorable moments. During the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Claman DeMelo registered his best finish of the season with a 12th place result. Two weeks later he made his first start in the Indianapolis 500, leading seven laps before gambling on fuel and finishing 19th.
So while the finish wasn’t optimal, the real win came from the experience gained for Claman DeMelo – something he hopes he can deploy in the near future.
“It was an extremely exceptional experience, and to lead was unbelievable. I would have liked to have finished better than I did, obviously, but it was still a great result for it being my first time there,” said Claman DeMelo.
“We took a gamble at the end with strategy and it really didn’t work for us, but if there’s any race you have to do that it’s the ‘500.’ I learned a lot being there and racing in front of such a massive crowd, and I learned a lot about driving during that race.”
When queried on the possibility of a Freedom 100 and Indianapolis 500 double in 2019, Claman DeMelo stated that while nothing is in the works, he certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it.
“I guess there’s a chance but I haven’t spoken to anyone about yet. To me, the main focus has been Indy Lights and that’s it. But of course, if something came up to run the Indy 500, I’d love to do it again,” Claman DeMelo said.
“I don’t see a reason why I couldn’t run
Header image courtesy of IndyCar Media.