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Claman De Melo Jumping at Unexpected '500' Chance with Dale Coyne Racing

Zachary Claman De Melo was working out in New York City and playing whatever racing video games he could find two weeks ago.

“I play any game that has wheels and a motor,” he said.

The Indianapolis 500 wasn’t among his virtual experiences. The thought of running in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was a distant dream.

That made Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway rather surreal when Dale Coyne Racing announced Claman De Melo as the replacement driver for an injured Pietro Fittipaldi in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

A couple of hours before the first official “500” practice began, the 20-year-old from Montreal anxiously walked around Gasoline Alley with an unmistakably wide grin. The rookie’s T-shirt read “RADICAL,” but he was trying to keep his emotions in check.

“My phone started blowing up, so I guess it’s kind of official now,” he said, minutes after the team sent out a press release. “I’m really excited. I can’t wait to get out and learn as much as I can.

“I’m just dying to get on track. There’s a lot of pressure off me now that it’s confirmed, and I can just focus on the job.”

Claman De Melo made a strong statement to Coyne with a 12th-place finish Saturday in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, in which he passed a race-high 19 cars and was running in the top 10 until the final laps. After two days of mulling his options for this fourth entry, Coyne decided to stick with a driver who had familiarized himself with the team in four other Verizon IndyCar Series starts this season.

“He’s approaching this place with respect,” Coyne said. “He ran a nice race in the GP. He’s ready.”

Claman De Melo has driven on this track twice before in the Indy Lights Freedom 100, finishing sixth last year, but he conceded the “500” didn’t even seem like a remote reality.

“I didn’t even think I’d be in IndyCar the year after, never mind the Indy 500, so this is really exciting,” he said. “Being in this race was one of my goals. The ultimate goal is winning this race one day, maybe even this year. We’ll just kind of see what happens. We’ve seen stranger things happen here than a rookie winning.”

That’s a radical thought for a rookie who must learn the nuances of running on the IMS 2.5-mile oval, put in the miles during lengthy practice sessions for four days, then qualify this weekend. Then there’s the 200-lap endurance test Sunday, May 27.

He will hear the predictable preaching of patience, which every driver knows but is reminded. Don’t make it rocket science, although as Coyne reminded, “It’s a rocket going around that 2.5-mile oval.”

The messages worked for Coyne last year with rookie Ed Jones, who enjoyed the best race of his season with a third-place “500” finish.

“I didn’t think he’d be third,” Coyne said of Jones, “but he ran a very steady race all day long. That’s what you’ve got to emulate. Don’t bite it all off at once. Just keep working at it slow and easy, and you’ll get there at the end.”

Jones parlayed his Sunoco Rookie of the Year series season into landing a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, so Coyne needed a replacement to team up with four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais. Claman De Melo and Fittipaldi were hired to split duties, although Fittipaldi had the more recognizable name as the grandson of two-time Indy 500 winner and two-time Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Claman De Melo finished fifth in Indy Lights last season, with one win at Road America.

When Fittipaldi suffered multiple leg fractures in a May 4 crash in Belgium, Claman De Melo wished his teammate a speedy recovery. While these weren’t the circumstances he wanted to get a ride, Claman De Melo couldn’t help but think he had a good chance of filling in at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. 

All four of Claman De Melo’s starts this season were on road and street courses, so he wasn’t thinking “500,” at least not then. After Saturday’s result, he didn’t hold back in saying he thought he had earned a shot.

Now he’s got it.

“An oval is a totally different animal than a road course,” he said. “My mentality changes a little.”

Wandering eyes and twitching body language suggested this animal couldn’t wait to be let out of his cage to run.

“Cool and calm,” Claman De Melo insisted.

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