Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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

Leave a comment

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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Road America

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski