WHEN YOU LOOK like you're 13, people are reluctant to think you can drive a car. Then 16-year-old Zach Veach flashes his license and says he's a race car driver climbing the development ladder to the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Sure, kid, good one. But don't wait for the punch line, because it's not coming. As one accomplished veteran driver will attest, Veach's ability behind the wheel is years ahead of his racing peers. "Speed is something you can't teach," says Michael Andretti, owner of Andretti Autosport and a former open-wheel champ, who signed Veach in 2010 after watching him dominate lower-level circuits. "And Zach had it right away."
A native of rural Stockdale, Ohio, located 15 miles from the Kentucky border, Veach is one of the early test cases for IndyCar's two-year-old feeder system, which includes the USF2000 National Championship, Star Mazda Championship and Firestone Indy Lights. He's on track to reach the majors before his 19th birthday -- a fast ascent considering his father, Roger, a truck-and tractor-pull champion, didn't allow him behind the wheel until he was 12. Most hopefuls are in go-karts by age 4.
Despite the eight-year delayed start, missing the first two races of 2010 while waiting for a team to pick him up and competing alongside drivers as old as 20, Veach managed to finish fifth in the USF2000 standings as a 15-year-old. He rode that momentum to a title in the short winter portion of the circuit and finished fourth in the series final points standings this season. The success prompted Andretti to promote Veach to also compete in Star Mazda for the final two races of the series -- he finished seventh in his first race and will be at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., on Sept. 16 -- meaning a move to Indy Lights may come sooner than expected.
"I've been one of the smallest guys for my age out there since I started," says the 5-foot-2, 95-pound Veach, who's able to turn a wheel that's like torquing a 25-pound dumbbell at eye level without the benefit of power steering. "That just makes me work harder every day. Ever since I was playing with Hot Wheels, I've dreamed of racing in the Indy 500."
But holding that bottle of milk is not all the 11th-grade honor student has on his mind. In addition to Veach's daily regimen -- a two-hour morning workout, online school courses and afternoon sessions on a race simulator -- he found time to pen a book, 99 Things Teens Wish They Knew Before Turning 16, and start a company, ZaAPP, developing an Android app to deter teens from texting while driving.
He's so congenial and well-spoken that Andretti has dubbed him a "little PR machine," and that's precisely what IndyCar hopes to create in its rising stars: a better driver and a more marketable young name. "To have credibility, we have to create the best of the best at the bottom," says league CEO Randy Bernard, who is banking on future talent to soften the blow of losing his most recognizable driver, Danica Patrick, to NASCAR next season. "Without them, we can't claim to have the pinnacle of racing at the top."
Veach may well be the first of those future IndyCar stars. But in the interim, watch out for him on the highway. After all, he did just get his license eight months ago. No joke.
LaRue Cook covers college basketball and college football for ESPN Insider. He is also an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine where he coordinates coverage for both sports and motorsports. He has been with The Mag since 2008. You can find his ESPN archives here.