Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Timing, consistency, patience fuel Kyle Kaiser’s Indy Lights title

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In three years since the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires introduced its new Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the field size – and the level of top competition – has increased each season.

Kyle Kaiser is one of only two drivers who’ve been there in each of the 50 races in three years, Shelby Blackstock the other one, and is proof of what’s needed to grow into a Verizon IndyCar Series driver.

His maturation process from a crash-prone rookie to a calm, consistent and determined team leader at 21 years old, having moved from his hometown of Santa Clara, Calif. to Indianapolis, has been fascinating to watch at the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

That development paid dividends en route to securing this year’s title, which owed quite a bit both to timing and determination on his part along with a consistency each of his other title contenders lacked.

Kaiser’s authoritative weekends this year were few and far between – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Toronto street course weekends were the only two where on clear pace, Kaiser looked unbeatable.

But it was the other weekends where he maximized his results – really all except Mid-Ohio – that helped deliver him the title.

Having been there since the start of the new car period in 2015, Kaiser explained how much the competition has improved.

The 2015 Indy Lights field at Long Beach. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“That’s the crazy thing. It’s gotten higher year-on-year,” Kaiser told NBC Sports at Watkins Glen. “We have all these really strong guys coming from Europe. And we have some very strong drivers that returned, with Santi coming back after he almost won the championship last year. I think this year was a really good performance, because I wasn’t making the mistakes that cost me the title last year.”

He would know. Kaiser’s early race accidents in 2015 revealed a driver who was still a bit raw in his step up from Pro Mazda, with a notable shunt with Jack Harvey in Long Beach standing out for all the wrong reasons.

There were two podiums and sixth place in points, but Kaiser was in a clear “second tier” among drivers beyond the three primary title contenders – Harvey, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones – and more on par with fellow rookies RC Enerson and Max Chilton. All five have since made it to IndyCar for at least a handful of starts.

Kaiser had grown enough to uphold the mantle of team leader at Juncos Racing by year two in Indy Lights. Fostered by the people around him – Ricardo Juncos as team principal and engineers Peter Dempsey and Ernie Gonella, primarily – Kaiser built the confidence to where he could become a race winner in the series.

Kaiser head of the queue in Phoenix in 2016. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

And as Indy Lights grew in 2016 where there were seven different winners, Kaiser joined that list. Domination at Phoenix followed by an emotional win on home soil at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a track he knows intimately from his junior years, were his first two triumphs. There were still mistakes but far fewer of them, and third in points was no less than he and the team deserved.

No one in 2016 had a truly standout season. Eventual champion Jones rallied through a rough summer stretch. Santiago Urrutia, up from winning the Pro Mazda title, looked a world beater on permanent road courses but struggled mightily on ovals, and also watched as his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team disintegrated around him. Enerson, expected to be a title contender, tired of myriad team and mechanical issues and left midseason before jumping into IndyCar. Zach Veach alternated boom-and-bust results in his return to the series. The same was true for Dean Stoneman and Felix Serralles, who won races but were highly inconsistent. Felix Rosenqvist won three races on a partial schedule and probably had the most natural talent in the field, but wasn’t there to properly contend.

It was there the signs of consistency could come good for Kaiser in the grand scheme of things, and along with Urrutia, they were likely equal co-favorites for this year’s championship. And with Urrutia only racing this year on a late deal with Belardi Auto Racing with SPM, Kaiser had the team consistency in his pocket too. Having known how Juncos operates both its Pro Mazda and Indy Lights programs, Kaiser knew the team wouldn’t lose focus.

“That guy knows how to handle pressure!” Kaiser said. “He can be everywhere and take care of so much stuff to be a great team owner. Any stress he may have had in the Pro Mazda program, I haven’t had to worry about any of that in the Indy Lights program all year.”

Such was the case. Whereas Kaiser had all the elements needed to succeed in his back pocket, his six-pack of rivals all hit rough patches at various points, and so 2017 followed a similar arc as 2016.

Urrutia took time to gel with Belardi and was almost out of the title by May. Despite an eventual rally from 11th to second, he couldn’t quite overcome the deficit.

Kaiser leads field at IMS. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Rookies Colton Herta, Nico Jamin, Matheus Leist and Aaron Telitz all won races, but all made their fair share of rookie mistakes, bore the brunt of reliability issues or suffered from both. Zachary Claman DeMelo added a variable as an improved sophomore – a la Kaiser last year, although after bailing from Juncos and switching to Carlin – and featured enough speed and consistency worth taking notice of. Quite by contrast, Claman DeMelo’s fellow sophomore teammate at Carlin, Neil Alberico, watched his title hopes fade away by the end of May after a strong start.

Kaiser drove smart all season with the exception of Mid-Ohio, then rallied at Gateway with an ultimate statement drive to put his grasp on the title. He avoided potential pitfalls as Claman DeMelo and Jamin both spun right near him, put a deep pass on Urrutia’s outside into Turns 1 and 2 that left the Uruguayan surprised, then finished fourth to score enough points where he didn’t need any result at Watkins Glen to lock down the title.

“I wanted to get on the podium but knowing where I was, being fourth with three laps to go, I just had to bring it home,” Kaiser reflected. “That restart, I almost put it in the wall but I didn’t – I saved it! That was a season saving catch, for sure.”

It wasn’t the flashiest of seasons, but it didn’t need to be. Considering how far Kaiser has come over a four-year period, the fact it was quiet but solid all throughout the year spoke volumes of the maturation needed to become a respectable IndyCar driver. He’ll do so for at least three races courtesy of the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship.

At Sonoma, he was busy making the rounds a couple weeks after winning the title. He impressed the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network, did a number of media appearances at the IndyCar season finale, and held his own against yours truly in an impromptu typing contest.

Consider he has a high level of experience he already has going into IndyCar is the four years in the ladder, a similar number to a Pigot or James Hinchcliffe, for instance. He’s won once each on an oval, street course and road course. He’s become solidified in Indianapolis, where he now calls home.

And he only said he got nervous once it came to delivering his championship acceptance speech at the banquet in Watkins Glen, so that’s a sign of his steely resolve in the cockpit.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But Kaiser’s appreciation for the team that’s built him into a champion really said more than his results.

“I’ve been with the team four years now,” he said in his championship speech. “You guys saw my potential… you’re always honest with me, and your driver development program has made me the driver I am today.

“Your love for the sport and unrelenting desire to win has brought you so much success.”

With both Kaiser and Juncos Racing poised to graduate into IndyCar on a more substantive basis in 2018 – together or not – the result of this year’s Indy Lights championship is deserved fruit for both their labor.

Mazda Road to Indy 2018 schedules are released

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A handful of minor tweaks have been made to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires schedules for the 2018 season, but they’re not too different than 2017 and largely mirror the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule that was put out last week.

The full details are below.

The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires today unveiled its 2018 calendar of events. The most effective driver development program in the world with over $3.5M in scholarships and awards on offer will continue its momentum at premier road course, street circuit and oval venues in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The highly acclaimed platform – comprised of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – will enter the new season with a trio of state-of-the-art chassis on display including the much anticipated debut of the new Pro Mazda PM-18 which completes the revitalization of the entire ladder system.

On deck for 2018 is a return to the Pacific Northwest and Portland International Raceway (PIR) in Portland, Ore. The 1.967-mile, 12-turn permanent road course will host the season finale for all three series. Indy Lights last raced at PIR in 2001, and Pro Mazda and USF2000 in 2006. The last IndyCar race took place in 2007.

The month of May will bring several new additions. Pro Mazda and USF2000 will return to Lucas Oil Raceway for the Carb Night Classic “The Race Before the 500” after a year’s hiatus. Mere hours after the conclusion of Carb Day activities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 – including the Freedom 100, the crown jewel on the Indy Lights schedule – the two series will make their appearance on the .686-mile oval.

Additionally, the three Indianapolis oval races will see an increase in points for all series for the first time, and an increase in prize money.

In Pro Mazda, the National Class will be replaced by the Pro Mazda Classic (PMC) Series – a six-weekend, 12-race championship within the Pro Mazda Championship utilizing the older Pro Mazda rotary-powered cars from 2002 to 2017. The series will see a separate points chart, prize money and year-end awards.

While there is no limitation on PMC Series testing, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 will see amended testing rules. Indy Lights in-season testing is restricted to two days per team with two additional days available for use with current Pro Mazda and USF2000 drivers. Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams are permitted four days of in-season testing per driver but not at tracks yet to hold an event. Each series will continue with open tests at select venues.

The annual Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 23- 26. Indy Lights will test on the 1.5-mile oval on February 23 and the 2.21-mile road course on February 26. Pro Mazda and USF2000 will run on the weekend – February 24 and 25 – to assist young drivers juggling their schedules alongside school commitments.

The Mazda Road to Indy Summit program – providing valuable education on a variety of topics including marketing/business, media training, career growth and development, fitness, social media and a comprehensive oval clinic – will continue to be in place next season.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into our schedule and I am pleased with the balance we have in place to properly train drivers to move up the ladder,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “We are excited to have Portland on the schedule, which will be a great circuit for our season finales in the three series, and to return to Lucas Oil Raceway on Carb Day for a great night of racing. The Freedom 100 is obviously the biggest race on our calendar and to be able to bring Pro Mazda and USF2000 back into the excitement surrounding the Indianapolis 500 was key. Increasing both the points awarded and the prize money gives these events the weight they deserve.

“The Mazda Road to Indy will take on new life next year with the competition debut of the PM-18. This completes the process we began several years ago to provide the best for our competitors with state-of-the-art race cars. We have a great program in place and it’s working. As always, I am looking forward to seeing many of our drivers take their next steps up the ladder including our recently crowned champions.”

Indy Lights will feature a 17-race schedule at 10 venues comprised of three oval, five road course and two street circuit events. In addition to hour-long race broadcasts on NBCSN, Indy Lights will also be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on indylights.com and indycar.com.

Coverage of all Indy Lights sessions is available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network with broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course*
April 20-22 Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile road course*
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 25 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 7-8 Iowa Speedway .894-mile oval
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course*
August 24-25 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course*

*Doubleheader events

Open tests are scheduled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 23 (oval) and 26 (road course), Barber Motorsports Park on March 5, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10 (road course) and 21 (oval), Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18 for a total of nine test days.

Pro Mazda will expand to a nine-event, 16-race schedule which includes two ovals, five road course and two street course venues. Pro Mazda will be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on promazda.com and indycar.com.

Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course* + PMC
April 20-22 Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile road course* + PMC
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course* + PMC
May 25 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course* + PMC
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course* + PMC
August 24-25 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course* + PMC

*Doubleheader events
+ Pro Mazda Classic Series

A total of 10 open test days are scheduled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 24/25, Barber Motorsports Park on March 3/4, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 24, Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18.

The USF2000 series will continue with a 14-race format held at seven venues featuring one oval, four road course and two street circuit events. Coverage will be available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on usf2000.com and indycar.com.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course*
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 25 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course**
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course*

*Doubleheader events
**Tripleheader event

Open tests are schedule at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 24/25, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 24, Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18 for a total of eight test days.

Two events still remain on the 2017 calendar – the seventh annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 21/22 and the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout on December 9/10 at the Bondurant Racing School near Phoenix, Ariz.