By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
In an Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season that saw a ton of unpredictability with seven different winners, one thing was predictable: consistency from one driver would win the championship.
That consistency came from Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser.
Kaiser entered his third season in Indy Lights and his fourth Mazda Road to Indy season with Juncos Racing (fifth MRTI season overall). His second Indy Lights campaign was a big improvement over his first with two wins and only two finishes outside the top 10, but six sixth-place finishes put the brakes on a charge for the championship.
2017 started out a lot like his previous season with a sixth-place finish in the first race at St. Petersburg followed up by a fourth in the second race. A pair of runner-up finishes at Barber Motorsports Park brought Kaiser to second in the points, but the best was yet to come for the California native.
Kaiser picked up a third-place and a win (his first not on the West Coast) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and that was enough to propel him to the lead of the Indy Lights championship standings, a lead that he would never surrender.
A less than ideal ninth at the Freedom 100 was followed up by a third and a second at Road America before a fifth-place at Iowa Speedway led Kaiser to his best weekend of the season.
The No. 18 Dallara IL-15 pulled into Victory Lane both times that weekend, but Kaiser’s title rivals having issues was the larger story. In a way, Toronto by itself was a microcosm of the entire season.
While the Juncos Racing driver was running up front, his fellow race winners all ran into issues.
Let’s go through each of them before returning to Kaiser:
Santiago Urrutia had five finishes of 11th or below and two DNFs because of mechanical failures. Colton Herta had six finishes of 10th or lower with two DNFs because of contact. In fact, almost all of his lackluster results were from contact.
Matheus Leist had contact and a mechanical fault at St. Petersburg that left him last in the standings but a DNF at Toronto for contact and a pair of 10th place finishes at Mid-Ohio and Gateway halted the Brazillian after a sensational mid-season run of three wins in four races and six consecutive top five finishes.
One of Leist’s Carlin teammates, Zachary Claman De Melo, was consistent in finishing races but he had nine finishes between fourth and eighth over the course of the 16 race season.
Meanwhile, Aaron Telitz bookended the season with wins at St. Petersburg and Watkins Glen, but it was a feast or famine season for the 2016 Pro Mazda champion as he had six finishes of eighth or lower to go against his nine top five finishes. Nico Jamin, meanwhile, had three wins, but six finishes of 10th or lower put his championship aspirations on hold.
However, Kaiser only had one bad weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A pair of 12th place finishes was nothing to write home about, but with title rival Leist having a 10th and 11th at the Lexington, Ohio-based road course, Kaiser’s title shot was almost as good as sewn up by the time the series went to Gateway Motorsports Park.
A fourth-place finish at the 1.25 mile oval didn’t give Kaiser the title, but it meant that all he had to do was take the green flag at Watkins Glen and the title and Mazda scholarship would be his.
And start that race he did. With a camera attached to his helmet for Watkins Glen, Kaiser would finish seventh in the season finale. Not the result he wanted, but ultimately all that mattered was starting the engine, and that was it.
For Kaiser, this championship represents the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The first journey was to get into the Verizon IndyCar Series, while the second is becoming an IndyCar race winner and champion.
Kaiser took his time on that first journey but in that time perfected the consistency required to become a champion.
Kaiser had eight podiums in 2017, only Urrutia had more with nine. However, 10 top five finishes in an 11 race span is the more impressive statistic. From the second race in St. Petersburg to the second race in Toronto, the only finish below fifth place was at the Freedom 100.
A couple of errors at Mid-Ohio that prevented him from clinching the championship early were his only demerits. So for that, Kaiser’s season gets an A in the MRTI grade book.