Indianapolis 500 contender Rinus VeeKay's rise powered by Ford dealership, Chevrolet

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

After his family sold their Ford dealership to finance his racing career, a 20-year-old Dutchman will try and win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday for Chevrolet from the outside of the front row.

Rinus VeeKay is one of many great acts as the IndyCar circus races under its biggest tent.

Twenty-year old Dutchamn Rinus Veekay is all smiles after qualifying his #21 Bitcoin Chevrolet third for the Indy 500.

As VeeKay’s meteoric rise to the top of America's fastest motorsport indicates, Indy is a global intersection of speed, legends, corporate giants, and young dreams. IndyCar spends the month of May in Indianapolis for practice, qualifying, and two races, and 2020 Rookie of the Year VeeKay already had established himself as one to watch May 15 when he ran away away from the field to his first IndyCar victory on Indy’s counter-clockwise road circuit.

One week later, and he was back for Indy 500 qualifying — run counter-clockwise around the 2.5-mile oval at speeds in excess of 230 mph. VeeKay ran a breathtaking, 231.511 mph lap that stood as pole until the last minutes of qualifying when he was leapfrogged by fellow-Gen Z racer Colton Herta and pole-sitting veteran Kiwi Scott Dixon.

“I really drove on the limits and almost lost it in the last lap," VeeKay said in an interview after his four-lap session. "Yeah, didn’t lift. I had a very big moment there of oversteer. But if I had lifted, I probably would not be on the front row. The goal is always not to lift in qualifying."

Rinus VeeKay put the #21 Bitcoin Chevrolet IndyCar on the outside of the front row.

This prodigious, fearless talent was noticed early on in the young Dutchman’s racing career. After winning multiple European karting championships, he came to America as a 17-year-old, finishing second in the USF200 open-wheel series. By age 19 he was runner-up in the Indy Lights championship, IndyCar’s Triple-A farm league.

Like many American immigrants before him, Rinus American-ized his surname to “VeeKay” from the Dutch van Kalmthout.

“My parents call me VK. It was hard over here to spell my last name all the time. (It’s) super long. It’s way easier as VeeKay,” he said.

Though born in the Netherlands, VeeKay was raised in a Ford family. His father, Marijn van Kalmthout, was the country's biggest Ford dealer.

“My dad sold his business when . . . I broke through with go-karts,” said VeeKay, who turned 20 last September. “He did that to make time for me and my, my racing and invest all his time and money managing me and making sure I made the right decisions.”

Ironically, VeeKay’s big IndyCar breakthrough came from a Chevrolet-powered team, Ed Carpenter Racing. Chevy and Honda are the series' major corporate sponsors and engine providers.

Rinus VeeKay was the IndyCar circuit's rookie of the year in 2020.

VeeKay enjoys additional backing from Arie Luyendyk, heretofore Holland’s most famous racing driver, and the winner of the Indy 500 in 1990 and 1997. Luyendyk (whose son is also a U.S. racer and "Bachelor" contestant) helps mentor VeeKay.

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Forty-year-old team owner Carpenter, one of the sport’s best oval-track racers, is not just VeeKay’s boss — he is also a teammate who will be making his 18th attempt at winning the 500 (he has finished as high as second). He'll start in the fourth position, right behind his young protégé.

Carpenter is part of a generation of IndyCar graybeards who are hungry to win this weekend, including 40-year-old pole-sitter Dixon, 46-year-old Tony Kanaan (starting fifth), 40-year-old Ryan Hunter-Reay (starting seventh), 46-year-old Helio Castroneves (eighth), 44-year-old Takuma Sato (15th), 45-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya (24th), and 42-year-old Sébastien Bourdais (27th).

They’ll be fighting it out with rising young guns half their age like VeeKay, Herta, Alex Palou (starting 6th), and Pato O’Ward (12th).

VeeKay has made the move to the United States for his IndyCar career (he lives right across the street from the famed track), and makes regular treks to the Pratt & Miller simulator in Charlotte, North Carolina, for hours of practice on Indy and other upcoming race courses.

“We’ll get a full day” on the simulator, he said, sharing the time with Carpenter or his third teammate, Conor Daly. “The engineers like to fly there early in the morning, but I always feel like I need my sleep so I go the evening before. It’s like office days for drivers.”

Rinus Veekay qualified at over 231 mph in his #21 Bitcoin Chevrolet.

After Indy, VeeKay & Co. will travel to the Detroit Grand Prix, June 11-13, for a very different challenge on the raw streets of Belle Isle.

"In 2019, I got asked to drive the pace car laps in the (Chevy) Camaro” for the Detroit Grand Prix, VeeKay said. “So I got some experience there with the Camaro, but that's about it.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.