By Patrick Stephan and Steve Wittich
Juncos Racing sophomore Kyle Kaiser started on pole for the second time in three races in 2016, and unlike in St. Petersburg, the Indy Lights sophomore was able to get a great start and cruised to his first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire victory.
The InterVision/NetApp/Juniper Networks sponsored Kaiser has now stood on all three steps of the podium in the first three races of the season. This was the second Mazda Road To Indy victory for the 20 year-old from Santa Clara, California native, who also scored one win in Pro Mazda in 2014 at Sonoma.
Front row starters Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Ed Jones (Carlin) led 16 turbo-charged Mazda powered Dallara race cars to the start/finish line for the 90 lap Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix. The pace car was a little bit late getting off the track, and therefore the start was a little bit chaotic.
Kaiser pulled away quickly as soon as the green flag flew and was followed closely into Turn 1 by Jones, behind the front two the field got three wide with sophomore RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian) able to get by his teammate Santiago Urrutia, who started in third. Urrutia also lost another spot to his other teammate, Andre Negrao.
At the end of the first lap, the top five were Kaiser, Jones, Enerson, Negrao and Urrutia. The biggest early mover was Zach Veach, who had to start in last position after suffering a punctured tire and crashing his bright red No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing machine in the final practice yesterday. Veach was able to gain three more spots over the course of the race and ended up gaining eight spots while finishing eigth.
As expected, passing was at premium and Kaiser was able to hold a between a 1 and 1.5 second lead over Jones through the first third of the race. The most excitement in the first 30 laps came when Stoneman was pressing Claman de Melo for seveth, the young Canadian got into the marbles and ended up losing a number of spots slotting into 11th place.
On lap 33, Kaiser was beginning to catch oval rookie Heamin Choi (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian), who made a mistake and lost the back-end off of Turn 4. The Korean driver was able to keep the car off the wall, but he did retire the No. 77 due to handling issues.
The lap 39 restart provided a great opportunity for passing, but Stoneman was the only one to make any hay when he was able to get by the bright blue No. 4 Carlin machine of Serralles.
Proving it was hard to pass, Stoneman spent the better part of the next 30 laps working on getting by Negrao. At the same time he was defending from Stoneman for fifth, Negrao was also putting pressure on Urrutia for fourth. Stoneman was finally able to get by Negro on lap 72 and set off after the Soul Red No. 55 of the defending Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire champion. Stoneman was unable to catch Urrutia, but he still finished as highest placed oval rookie.
Up front the gap between Kaiser and Jones remained steady with the battle for second, third and fourth providing the only action in the final 15 laps of the race.
Urrutia was able to put some pressure on Enerson and tried to make a move underneath his teammate in Turn 1. The move was not successful, and Enerson was able to use a blistering final lap to just about nip Jones for second at the checkered flag. The Lucas Oil sponsored No. 7 crossed the line only 0.2 seconds behind the Jebel Ali Resorts and Hotels sponsored No. 11.
After the race, the drivers noted that it was quite hard to pass because of the dirty air created by the cars in front of them and also praised the Cooper Tire racing slicks. Most everybody expected tire wear to become a factor but the tires stayed very consistent throughout the 90 lap race. To illustrate that, the first at speed lap for Kaiser was a Lap 2, where he did a 160.82mph lap. The tires came in a little more and in clean air, he turned a 163.128 on Lap 3. From there, speeds would decline steadily, but not dramatically. Lap 33 just before the yellow, he turned a 158.163. He’d turn laps in that same range for remainder after we got back to green.
It wasn’t until lap 81 that we saw his first 156mph lap, and he slowed fairly consistently from there to taking the checked flag at 152mph. It’s important to note that he maintained a gap over Jones that remained 1.3 seconds for most of the event, only fluctuating tenth or two higher or lower for the entire 90 lap race.
Here is the finishing order with more notes from the post race press conference below that:
Pos Car # Driver Diff TL
1 18 Kyle Kaiser — 90
2 11 Ed Jones 1.0088 90
3 7 RC Enerson 1.2089 90
4 55 Santiago Urrutia 1.6121 90
5 27 Dean Stoneman 2.5229 90
6 17 Andre Negrao 3.2298 90
7 4 Felix Serralles 4.5529 90
8 5 Zach Veach 5.3458 90
9 22 Neil Alberico 6.4200 90
10 28 Dalton Kellett 6.9455 90
11 13 Zachary Claman De Melo 10.5512 90
12 2 Juan Piedrahita 11.5030 90
13 3 Scott Hargrove 14.3040 90
14 51 Shelby Blackstock 14.8676 90
15 14 Felix Rosenqvist 22.1871 90
16 77 Heamin Choi 56 LAPS 34
The Top 3 came in to the media center after the race to chat.
Enerson said that he knew they would be strong this weekend after running well at the test. The start was a little messy and he was surprised to get to third so quickly, expecting a little more side by side early on. Compared to yesterday, he said the track was a little slower today. He also noted he really had to concentrate out there today, calling it both a mental and physical challenge.
Second place finisher Ed Jones said it was a great race for the team. Once Kyle got the jump at the start he knew it would be difficult to pass and he was just trying to wait for a mistake or traffic to capitalize on. The yellow though really hurt him since they wouldn’t catch back to the traffic again. He called the race “good fun”, but also said the aero made it hard to really close.
Jones told TSO that every time he tried to “push” and close the gap to Kaiser, he’d heat up the tires and lose grip. He thought they were a little too loose from the start also which meant he had to take care of the tires all that much more.
Kaiser agreed on the aero stuff, noting that being up front was different. Once he did catch a backmarker (just before the yellow), it changed the balance of the car a lot. But, in clean air, the tires didn’t wear much at all.
“This car was perfect from start to finish. Now I can celebrate.”
Kaiser had called ovals ‘scary’ yesterday and he didn’t back away from that today. He still thinks they are scary but now he also has a lot of confidence on them. (When he says “scary” I always think of this quote from Mario Andretti, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough!”
“It’s still scary (haha). You always have to be on top of it. One mistake and you’ll be in the wall. Stay focused, constantly. If you slip you’ll make a mistake,” said Kaiser.
On when he might plan to try and move up, Kaiser said, “This is my proving year to show we can race with the best.”