There’s nothing like a Grand Canyon hiking adventure to test the bond of friendship.
Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves started out as intense racing rivals. The idea that Chaves would one day join Veach on such an exhausting outdoor endeavor would have seemed unimaginable when they were competing against each other in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in 2014.
“It’s a relationship that started out in hate,” Veach said with a smile.
By the time they took that hiking trip with their girlfriends last offseason, Veach and Chaves had become the closest of friends. It was Chaves and his girlfriend, Gabby Piccarreta, who had dragged Veach out for a night on the town when Veach met his girlfriend, Kate McConnell.
It's not the first time one was there for the other. When Veach feared the worst, that he could no longer pursue a racing career in 2017, it was Chaves who convinced his friend to keep trying. Veach landed Group 1001 as a sponsor for a ride in the Indianapolis 500, and that sponsor is still on his car today in a second full-time season with Andretti Autosport.
Chaves, who has made 31 career NTT IndyCar Series starts but is without a ride this season, now gets the same encouragement from Veach to stick with his dream.
But how did 40 miles of hiking on varying levels of steep elevation over a span of five days test their bond? They became even closer.
Chaves knew his friend was an avid rock climber and that McConnell loved hiking. He would be out of his element.
“This is something I had never done,” Chaves said. “There were times when I asked, ‘What am I doing here?’ But the majority of the time, it’s such a cool and new experience. You’re out there free from the rest of the world. It’s just you and your good friends and you’re relying on yourself to survive, right? There’s no cell reception. You basically carry enough water and food for the time you’re out there. If something goes wrong, you’ve got to look out for yourself. You can’t just pick up a phone or go to the nearest gas station. It’s a lot more of a primal experience. It’s fun to experience that with good friends.”
Make no mistake about it, the “fun” was mentally and physically challenging.
“We were averaging 10-hour days, hiking and walking up and down big slopes, through the valley, down the valley, up the valley in the Grand Canyon,” Chaves said. "We’re pulling 10- to 12-hour days, just doing that to get to the next site on the map where we could rest.”
Veach’s enthusiasm for the outdoors was evident and infectious.
“That’s something I love about the nature side,” Veach said. “I know Gabby had such a hard year. It was perfect for us just to get away from the world for a little bit. For five days, our biggest concerns were trying to get fresh water and (determine) what we were going to eat.
“When you’re down there (in the canyon), everything is just simple. You’re four friends having a good time, suffering together, and you’re thinking about life in a way that we all don’t ever get to think about it when we’re in every day life and working. It’s like going back in time. You have no cell phone service. The only communicating you do is with your friends for five days. It’s beautiful. That’s the one week I’ve had in the last year where my mind hasn’t been full enveloped.”
A short time after returning home, Piccarreta learned that her mother was sick. When Piccarreta's mother passed away, Veach and McConnell didn’t hesitate to make a long road trip to be there.
“I landed from England at 4 p.m., my girlfriend got off work at 9 p.m., we loaded up the Jeep and drove straight to North Carolina to be with them,” Veach said. “That’s what family does. You have to be there for each other. Out of that terrible time, we kind of knew they would be getting exchanged. I learned that I got to be one of his best men and would be planning his bachelor party.”
Added Chaves, “That’s when you know who your real good friends are, the ones who show up for the hard times. That shows it’s a real friendship.”
Veach reflects on how he's indebted to Chaves.
“I owe so much to Gabby,” Veach said. “I thought that my career was at an end and Gabby was the one guy who said, ‘Bro, you just have to keep your heart in it and keep pushing. Even when it feels terrible, something is going to happen.’ Honestly, Gabby was the one who kept me on this line to keep pushing for Indy car because I thought it was over and done for. Three weeks later, I found my sponsor who is my sponsor now.”
The plan is for the foursome to do some more hiking next offseason. Veach and McConnell consider the Grand Canyon an annual vacation. Chaves and Piccarreta are on board for another adventure.
“If you can’t suffer with your friends, you can’t suffer with anyone,” Veach said. “It’s a memory for a lifetime and we’ll do it again at the end of this year. They said they would do it again, just not any time soon.”