MEET THE CONTENDERS: KYLE KAISER
08 SEPTEMBER 2016
Kyle Kaiser is one of six drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship crown entering the doubleheader season finale this weekend at Mazda Raceway.
PALMETTO, Fla. – The name Kyle Kaiser would be a good one for a college quarterback, and if his decision of three years ago had not swung toward racing, that might very well be the case today. Instead, the 20-year-old Californian, who has quickly risen through the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder to fifth place currently in the 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires standings, has his eyes firmly focused on one goal: the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Kaiser grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., just south of San Francisco. His father Jeff raced in the Skip Barber series for several years in the Masters class, ranged against a cadre of young drivers such as Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Gabby Chaves, so Kaiser grew up around racing. His own sports of choice? Football and karting.
“The average weekend would be either a football game or a go-kart race. I started karting at age 7 and playing football at age 8," says the younger Kaiser. "Back then, racing was more something that we did as a father-son bonding thing. 2008 was the first year I really took it seriously, and at that point we decided to go into cars. My dad let me do the three-day Skip Barber Racing School when I was 13 and I really liked it. I went back and did a two-day school at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, then did the regional series. I did a couple of races against my dad and when I started beating him, he stopped racing to help me pursue racing.”
Kaiser honed his skills in Skip Barber alongside future Mazda Road to Indy stars Spencer Pigot, Shelby Blackstock and Scott Anderson. While his friends left for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Kaiser remained in Skip Barber for two more years. At the same time, he played quarterback for his high school junior varsity football team, taking a year off from racing in 2012 to focus on football.
But when Kaiser made the varsity team his junior year, he had a decision to make.
“I had decided to do Pro Mazda in 2013 and there was no way I could do both, so I went with racing because I could see doing it long term. It was hard, because my dad taught me never to quit at anything, and walking away from football felt like quitting. It took me a while to get used to not being out there, to just watching the games, but I know it was the right decision.”
Meanwhile, Kaiser’s racing friends were planning to graduate from USF2000 to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. He drove in the West Coast-based Formula Car Challenge in 2012 to get back into the groove, and when everyone else moved up into Pro Mazda, he moved up with them. After the season, Jeff Kaiser and Barry Pigot put their heads together and came up with a plan for their sons to join Juncos Racing – a plan that would reap remarkable benefits. Pigot won the 2014 Pro Mazda title and the 2015 Indy Lights championship, which propelled him into the Verizon IndyCar Series – all the while pushing and being pushed by Kaiser.
“Spencer has always been one step ahead of me. He was in the national Skip Barber series and I was in the regional series. I met him at the Skip Barber Shootout at Sebring, the year he and Felix Serralles won. We raced against each other in Pro Mazda in 2013, the year Matthew Brabham won the championship. Our dads starting talking after the season – the Pigots had raced with Ricardo Juncos in karting so we had a plan to work together.
“Spencer had a lot of experience and he’s a little bit older,” says Kaiser. “I was always happy to have him there to push me, because I knew he was one of the best drivers in the field. I knew he would bring 100 percent, so I had to bring everything as well if I was going to beat him. We pushed each other, we worked really well together, and it was a great environment. I learned a lot and he won two championships.”
Kaiser entered the 2016 season in a new position: that of team leader, alongside Canadian rookie Zachary Claman De Melo. But the experience of three seasons on the Mazda Road to Indy gave him the mindset he needed to earn his first series victory and contend for the championship.
“It was a natural progression after Spencer left. He taught me a lot and we worked well together, but I knew I could keep going at the same level without him. I felt confident at the end of last season, when I was finishing races and qualifying well, and that was the goal going into this season. My expectation was to be in contention for the championship and to prove that I could run up front and win races.”
Kaiser began the season right where he wanted to be, starting on pole in St. Petersburg, Fla., and earning two podium finishes. At the next event he set his season highlight, winning his first series race from pole position at Phoenix.
“That was the best weekend of my career, by far. Qualifying is so important, because we don’t have pit stops and they’re always sprint races. We rolled off with a really good car and I was able to get the win. And to come away with the championship lead at that point was great. But after Phoenix we found ourselves playing catch-up at some of the weekends and not qualifying as well. We were still finishing the races, but having to fight forward made it more difficult to get podiums. I didn’t finish two races, which showed me how important it is to be smart and make the right decisions to stay in the race until the end.”
The series now turns to the season finale at Kaiser’s home track, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. He lies 40 points behind championship leader Santi Urrutia, so he knows what he has to do – and that he’ll be doing it in front of a good number of family and friends.
“Win them both – that’s the goal! That’s all we can do. It’s slim, to win the championship, but I’ve seen crazier things happen on the Mazda Road to Indy. It’s my home race, so I’m going to do the best I can to bring home max points and be grateful for what I get.
“I did my Skip Barber Racing Schools at Mazda Raceway and I did two years of the regional Skip Barber series, and the majority of the races were there. I also had my Pro Mazda debut there in 2012. I’ve driven the track in many different cars and have always been fast, so I hope for more of the same. But ironically, the races that I’ve had the most family and friends at have been my best races, so I’m hoping a lot of people end up coming to this one!”