Lucky 13? Indy 500 starting spot means everything to rookie

INDIANAPOLIS — Zach Claman De Melo got the subtle tattoo three years ago, a small, black “13” just behind his right ear.

It’s a permanent tribute to his late grandmother, who was freed from a Holocaust camp on a Friday the 13th more than 70 years ago. The concentration camp numbers on her arm also added up to 13.

There’s no triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) for Claman De Melo: He considers it his lucky number. Still, when he qualified 13th last week for the Indy 500, the 20-year-old Canadian couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed.

“Thirteen is a super special number for us,” said Claman De Melo, the second-youngest driver in the 33-car field. “I’m not super superstitious, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened. I think it’s kind of her watching down on me in a way, so it’s special. I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s coincidence, either, that I’m 13th.”

Claman De Melo’s maternal grandmother will be with him in spirit when he climbs into the No. 19 entry for Dale Coyne Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

He would love to be behind the wheel of a No. 13 car, but he’s filling in for Brazilian Pietro Fittipaldi. The grandson of former Formula One star Emerson Fittipaldi broke both legs in a crash earlier this month.

It’s a huge opportunity for Claman De Melo to shine on IndyCar’s biggest stage.

Claman De Melo has raced twice before at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both in the Indy Lights Series. He’s well aware this will be much different, from the pomp and pageantry beforehand to the pep and pandemonium during the 500-mile race.

“I think it still hasn’t hit me yet,” he said.

Every day has presented new experiences, none more fascinating than milking a cow earlier this week. Indy 500 rookies are given the option to milk a cow near the speedway. Claman De Melo didn’t feel like he had a choice.

“I was kind of forced into it,” he said. “I heard it’s good luck, and if I don’t do it, bad things will happen. I’m not superstitious, but I didn’t want to test the cow, so I had to milk the cow. It was interesting. I got a lot of Purell on my hands after.”

He stopped short of drinking it. Of course, he would gladly down a bottle in the winner’s circle Sunday. Getting there would be the real stunner.

Claman De Melo competed in three of four IndyCar races this season, all on road courses. His stepped in for Fittipaldi at the Indianapolis Grand Prix earlier this month and finished a career-best 12th.

He does have some experience on the Indy oval, though. He competed the last two years at Indianapolis in Indy Lights. He crashed during qualifying in 2016, never got the car fixed perfectly and struggled to get around the 2 1/2-mile track. He ran second for much of the race last year before using up his tires and fading to sixth.

“I believe I can win this thing,” he said.

Sebastien Bourdais has been impressed with his new teammate, even if there hasn’t been much conversation or collaboration.

“He looks like he’s at ease,” Bourdais said. “He’s not been asking any questions. He’s been going on with his thing, and he’s done really well. … You can tell he’s not afraid. Confidence is building, which can be a good or bad thing at some point. But, yeah, definitely, he’s not questioning it much.”

Claman De Melo’s career has been on the rise since he started competing in regional and national karting events a decade ago. At age 12, he clinched the first of three Canadian kart titles and, at 16, was third at the world kart championship. In 2015, he made the jump to open-wheel racing in Europe’s Formula 3 MSV Cup before landing with defending Indy Lights champion Juncos Racing in 2016. He finished fifth in the drivers’ standings the following year with Carlin Motorsport.

Claman De Melo made his IndyCar debut in the 2017 season finale, the Grand Prix of Sonoma. He finished 17th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, driving the (what else?) No. 13 Honda. And now he will start 13th Sunday, a fitting spot five years after his grandmother’s death.

“To be honest, a lot of people don’t think I deserve to be here, and I respect everyone’s opinion,” he said. “A lot of people thought I was going to get bumped from this race, but I never had a doubt in my mind that I would make it into the race easily. To even be as far up the grid as we are, I’m really happy and I hope I can prove a lot of people wrong on race day, too.”

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