Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing currently leads the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship standings with two races remaining at Gateway Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International. Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) lie 42 points in arrears with the remaining championship contender, Matheus Leist (Carlin), at 48 points.
Kyle Kaiser knew this would be his best and, perhaps, last chance. 2017 marked his third Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires campaign, so it was a “now or never” scenario that presented itself to the 21-year-old Californian as the season began. Kaiser and his Juncos Racing team proceeded to spend the bulk of the year doing exactly what it took to take, then maintain, the championship lead, placing him on the cusp of realizing his dream: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s everything I’ve been working toward since I joined the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Kaiser. “I have yet to win a championship and the Mazda scholarship, so it would mean that all the hard work over the past five years has, well, not paid off exactly, but it means my name would be etched in the history books. That affirmation would mean a lot.”
That Kaiser is in this position now is a testament to his hard work. Making the jump from karting to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with only a season in the Formula Car Challenge to help in the transition, Kaiser signed with Juncos Racing for his second season in 2014 as teammate to good friend Spencer Pigot. With a front-row seat for Pigot’s championship-winning run, Kaiser finished sixth in the title chase and earned his first MRTI victory at the season finale in Sonoma. He graduated with Pigot to Indy Lights the following year and was once again wing man to Pigot’s title run. He became the Juncos team leader and championship contender last season, finishing third with three poles and two wins to his credit. Kaiser came into the 2017 season knowing that the time was now if he wanted to claim that elusive title.
However, the season did not start off as planned, with Kaiser earning a sixth and a fourth-place finish in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. (compared with a third and a second in 2016). The team regrouped and the learning experience set the tone for the season.
“This is my third year in the series so this was the year to get the championship. I have enough experience and I needed to go out and show what I could do. The St. Pete weekend was almost a wake-up call, since we didn’t do all that well – especially compared to last year. We had to figure things out and really make a push. Barber was much better, with a pole and two seconds. We found our rhythm so we knew we could make a run at the title and that was the focus from that moment on.”
Kaiser went on a four-race run after St. Pete that included two pole positions, four podium finishes and a victory on the road course at Indianapolis to mount a 13-point lead in the championship. He took podiums in four of the next six races, including a sweep of both races in Toronto that meant he holds the distinction of being the only current driver to score series victories on all three genres of race track (ovals, road courses and street courses). Kaiser believes the accomplishment really shows the amount of progress he has made in the series – an accomplishment made even more impressive by the depth of the Indy Lights field.
“I’m proud of the fact that I have won on all three disciplines. I think INDYCAR owners look for that sort of trait, to be versatile enough to win on any type of circuit. Toronto was my first double win and my first win on a street course. It meant a lot, since it’s almost like a home race because I have so much family there. But everything has really come together this year – mentally, attitude-wise and experience. All that came together this year to help me get more out of the car.
“Drivers come from all over the world to compete in Indy Lights, so you’re racing against some really good drivers,” Kaiser continued. “We get a good amount of seat time each weekend and I think my race craft has really improved. That’s why I wanted to stay in the series for three years. I wanted to get to the point where, after my last Indy Lights race, I would feel 100 percent ready to get into an Indy car. I’m proud of my progression over the past five years: not just in the results but in my driving. For example, I couldn’t get a pole my first couple of years, but this year I have three. I’ve gotten more aggressive as well, but smartly aggressive. Those are two areas I really wanted to improve upon, and I have.”
Ricardo Juncos’ eponymous team is well-known for the importance placed in driver development. Kaiser was no stranger to the classroom environment in the Juncos shop, now residing on Main Street in downtown Speedway, Ind. This development, coupled with the relationships established over the past four years, made the decision to stay with the team for his entire Indy Lights career a very easy one.
“The best thing is since I’m in Indy now, I can spend more time at the shop. So during that early stretch, I was there a lot, in meetings, talking to Ricardo, my coach and my engineers. It wasn’t about the big picture at that point, it was just a race-by-race focus on what it took to be the fastest car going into each weekend. We did a great job in pre-race so when we got to the track, we were quick right out of the gate. We didn’t worry about anyone else, we just focused on ourselves. And the execution was really good. Our best weekends were the ones where we did all our work ahead of time.
“It’s a huge benefit to me and that’s why I keep coming back. I love the group of guys, I trust everything they do and I know they’re going to be honest in their feedback to me regarding what I need to do to be better. Having that trust and that level of relationship is why I’ve had this kind of progression, and why I haven’t felt the pressure that much this year. We focus on having the fastest car in every session and what happens, happens. When things get tough, that’s invaluable. The championship lead had really been cut going into Toronto, so we focused on what we knew how to do – and we were quick right out of the gate, won both races and got the lead back. We’ll go into Gateway and Watkins Glen with that same mentality; that we took a hit at the previous race but we’re going to come back and execute the same way we did before.”
As Kaiser looks back over the past three years in the series, he remembers himself as the young driver who shadowed his championship-winning teammate inexorably moving up to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing. Through the lens of experience, he wishes there were a few words of wisdom he could have imparted on that impatient youngster.
“Focus on yourself and don’t worry about anyone else – that would be my number one piece of advice. I compared myself to Spencer and all the experience he had and tried too hard to keep up with that instead of focusing on my own driving. I didn’t feel as though I wasn’t ready; I was just trying too hard to make an impression. I won’t make that mistake again.”