HOW AMERICA’S NEWEST INDYCAR DRIVER TRANSFORMED INTO A CHAMPION
03 NOVEMBER 2017
Kyle Kaiser’s career jumps were daunting at first but diligence, maturity and the support of Juncos Racing have seen the 2017 Indy Lights champion arm himself with the tools necessary to make a strong impression in IndyCar. David Malsher reports.
Kaiser needed far more than just raw talent to reach the stage where he will become an IndyCar driver in 2018. From a very young age, he had to be prepared to look inwardly, recognize his flaws, and then work and work and work to eliminate them. He did so, and the result has been Indy Lights glory and a Mazda Scholarship to the big time.
The Santa Clara, CA-born karting hotshoe made the transition to cars while only 14, and strong performances in the Skip Barber Racing Series attracted the attention of World Speed Motorsports. The Sonoma Raceway-based team’s decision to run Kaiser in Formula Car Challenge in 2012 in the Pro Mazda class resulted in a dominant championship – but a sense of perspective is needed here. For one thing, he was mainly up against guys whose names you’ve never heard and never will, and 2) he was the only driver to compete in every round.
Still, gaining 14 races of experience in a Pro Mazda car were helpful and when World Speed moved him onto the Mazda Road To Indy, they chose to skip the bottom rung, USF2000, and join at Pro Mazda level. The competition proved fiercer than anything he’d encountered since the frantic karting days, and Kaiser rarely had a teammate with whom to pool data, so in those circumstances, seventh in the championship was quite respectable.
A move across to Juncos Racing in 2014 saw Kaiser’s overall performance improve but he was teamed with Spencer Pigot – three years his senior, twice a runner-up in USF2000, and already a race winner in Pro Mazda. Pigot dominated the championship while Kaiser had a season more typical of a rookie – sporadically impressive, sometimes anonymous, resulting in sixth in the title race.
However, Kaiser did score his first win in the series and Ricardo Juncos felt able to advance not only the scholarship-winning Pigot but also Kaiser into Indy Lights for 2015. That was the season in which the Lights series was reborn with the pretty and fast Dallara IL15-Mazda. Again Pigot hit the ground running and captured the title while his 19-year-old teammate showed some of the impetuosity of youth, and scored just two podium finishes.
What happened next, however, was deeply impressive. Kaiser got his act together that winter. He had learned his limits, learned the limits of the car and learned how to manage the Cooper tires for a full race. Armed with that mental databank, his new-found pace and consistency was on display throughout 2016. He took pole at St. Petersburg, dominated qualifying and raceday at Phoenix to score his first Lights victory, finished outside the top six just three times across the 18-round championship, and dominated the season’s penultimate race in Laguna Seca. The result was third in the championship, and that defined how he would race henceforth.
This past season Kaiser was the one constant, the one guy (Mid-Ohio apart) who you’d put money on to finish in the top five and not try anything stupid in high-tension situations. As well as three victories, the Juncos driver achieved five other podium finishes, beating the fast but fractious Santiago Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) and Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing) by 20 points and 30 points respectively. The title was his.
The $1m scholarship Kaiser earned from Mazda as Lights champion has ensured him three IndyCar starts next year, and last month Ricardo Juncos confirmed that Kaiser would make those three starts – plus one other – with his team. The Argentinean team owner is following his dream of racing in IndyCar fulltime after entering two cars at Indy this year, but he’s taking care not to overreach himself budget-wise. Instead, Juncos will adopt the same level-headed approach as Kaiser – the driver whose talent he carefully nurtured and developed, and the driver who listened, learned and then reinvented himself two years ago to become an ace.
DM: What’s the biggest difference between the Kyle Kaiser of 2015 and Kyle Kaiser, 2017 Indy Lights champion?
KK: The biggest thing was developing my driving to suit the car and developing my patience in the races. The first year in the series, I was trying to make things happen in the first lap of a race, going for it. I remember even telling my team, “Yeah, I’m going for it, Turn 1, Lap 1!” because I wasn’t qualifying where I thought I should be qualifying, so I was trying to make up for it as soon as possible when the green flag dropped. That didn’t work…
Then last year, I got better at qualifying but I thought, “OK, we don’t have the car this race and I’m gonna try and make the best of it but not force it on Lap 1.” I had the attitude of trying to get through the first couple of laps cleanly and then start to make some passes.
This season, I tried to combine the best of both worlds – I was a little more aggressive but without taking too many chances unless I knew they were going to work.
Yeah, it looked like a very Dario Franchitti-style approach – be sure of what you’re going to do or don’t do it! You also seemed to be very aware of what was going on around you. Like at Gateway, you gave an extra inch or two of room to some of your wilder rivals…
I had some tire overheating issues that race so the car was getting loose, and in traffic it got pretty gnarly. So I wasn’t always able to fight like I wanted to throughout the race, and we needed a good finish to wrap up the title. But I had a good fight with [Zachary] Claman De Melo – I think we were side by side for a couple of laps – and then I pulled ahead and we got fourth. It was a good points day, and it meant we only needed to start the final race at Watkins Glen to seal the championship.
In 2016 you ended your season with a win and a third place at Laguna Seca. Now, some folks say there is such a thing as momentum, others regard each race as a do-over. Where do you stand on that? Preseason, did you feel the pieces had clicked into place whereby 2017 would be your year?
Yeah, absolutely. And I actually felt like that two years ago, too. In the final races of 2015, we looked really strong, and I felt over that offseason that 2016 would start well. Sure enough, I got a third, a second and a first in the opening three rounds. So yeah, then ending 2016 strong with a win and a podium, I had a lot of confidence again going into this year. And I think having that confidence right from the start of a season definitely helps, and gives you momentum.
For your first races in IndyCar, will you feel you can be a little more off-the leash, because you won’t have a title to consider?
Well, I think the mature approach that I gained through three years of Indy Lights will still definitely be very helpful in IndyCar. But you’re right, not having a championship to worry about will probably make a difference. From about halfway through this season, we had a big lead in the points and we started thinking in terms of just trying to maintain and manage that. Now I want to move up and push as hard as I can.
But still, there’s a balance to find; I need to be smart about it. I don’t want it to be like my first year in Lights, where I was pushing so hard that I was making mistakes and losing time, just because I was so desperate to make a point.
At Watkins Glen after you clinched the title, someone asked what advice you’d give your rivals, and you made a very good point to Colton Herta along the lines of, ‘You’re amazing, but dude, calm down!’ It made me think of Toronto where he was leading but looking ragged, and the inevitable happened, and you won. That was wisdom beating exuberance right there…
Absolutely. Colton is unbelievably talented; for just 17 years old, he’s unreal. But he was pushing so hard, I saw him clip a wall almost every lap, and I knew that if I just kept pressuring him he was going to break. And so we won, and that’s definitely a case of learning through experience. But nothing against Colton – he’ll figure it out, and he has so much time on his side.
That’s a good tactic for you to have developed while still in the junior categories – pressuring someone into an error just by keeping pace with them and haunting them, without having to jeopardize your own car by taking a 50/50 chance.
Well, yeah, that’s a big thing – knowing who you’re racing, and who’s around you at all times. Some people I know I can be aggressive with and if I make a good move they’ll race me clean. Other people I know… it’s more of a risk, so if my car’s alongside them, they might not see me or might do something that puts us both out. I’d say in 2016 I was honing that ability and this year I took that forward and really got a handle on making the right moves at the right time.
When you see someone like Ed Jones performing well in IndyCar as he did in 2017, does that give you confidence knowing that you were able to run wheel to wheel with him in 2016?
Yeah, I find myself rooting for a lot of guys who have come up from Indy Lights, actually. I’m super happy for Spencer doing so well this year, happy for Josef winning the championship… even though I’m obviously going to be racing against them next year. It looks good for us, because it proves the Mazda Road To Indy works and it proves Indy Lights is a great preparation for IndyCar.
The Mazda scholarship guarantees three races, two of which are the Indy 500 and GP Indy. And you/Juncos have raised the funding for a fourth. I realize you haven’t decided which those other two races would be, but what would be your ideal? A short oval and a street course?
Honestly, I’d be happy with any tracks for the other two; I’ve had success on many different types of track while we were on the Mazda Road To Indy. But I suppose if I was to choose them myself, I’d pick a couple from my personal favorites – Long Beach, Phoenix, Toronto and Sonoma.
Sounds like you’re not going to get your first IndyCar test until January, which is obviously very unhelpful for a rookie. How much preparation can you do until then? Would you like to blow off the rust in the Rolex 24 at Daytona?
I’m training at PitFit on a regular basis because I’m living in Indiana for the entire offseason, and my trainer has stepped up my program so physically I’m fully prepared when the season begins. Driving-wise, Juncos has got simulators at their race shop, and I train on them, and there’s also a great simulator across the street at the Dallara shop.
Regarding Daytona, yeah, I’m definitely interested but so far I haven’t had any serious talks with anyone.
As a rookie on a rookie team and with no teammate, do you feel the pressure is off a little? Or is it the opposite – with a new aerokit for everyone to learn, is everyone going to be expecting you to shine immediately?
I don’t feel like the pressure is off… but I don’t feel like there is any added pressure, either. My goal and Juncos Racing’s goal is to just focus on ourselves – bring the best performance we can and learn as much as we can. I think the new aerokit is a nice equalizer for a new team entering the series, but there are also a lot of new things to learn, such as pitstops and different tire compounds. The pressure, as I see it, is going to come from within – to be the best we can be and then keep improving.