By Road to Indy
Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will see a dream realized next year when they graduate together from the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires to the top rung of the sport, the Verizon IndyCar Series. It is a testament to both the team’s expertise and Kaiser’s progression, which culminated in this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title and the Mazda scholarship, that helps to make their dream a reality.
After a successful karting career and limited car racing experience, which included an exploratory foray into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Kaiser and his father, Jeff, sought more solid footing for the 2014 season, somewhere they could grow and move forward with the team. The younger Kaiser had raced alongside good friend Spencer Pigot for years, and it was Jeff Kaiser and Barry Pigot who together chose Ricardo Juncos’ eponymous team – a decision that would propel both their sons to the top.
Kaiser had a front row seat for Pigot’s two title runs, to the Pro Mazda championship in 2014 and the Indy Lights title in 2015. Juncos worried that Kaiser might be moving too quickly onto the top rung of the ladder, but the team had a three-year plan to take Kaiser from raw rookie to champion and felt the sooner they started, the better – especially with Pigot acting as mentor. Juncos believes that Kaiser’s decision to stick with the team’s extensive driver development program and establish a solid rapport with everyone from shop staff to engineers was key to his success – and key to the decision to remain with the team in 2018.
“The chemistry was really good from the beginning,” said Juncos. “Pigot and Kaiser stayed with us in Indy Lights, and Kyle was again Spencer’s teammate when he won a championship. It may have been a year too soon but we wanted him to do three years in the series in order to make him the champion. It was a strategic plan. Jeff and Kyle trusted us with that and it all worked out. And now, Kyle will be with us in IndyCar, which is the perfect ending.
“Never before has a driver been with us for four full seasons. Having come through our driver development program, Kyle has learned more on the technical side, and the results are there. It’s good for us to see this because this is how we tell people about our system. Kyle is the result of our program and he’s grown so much. Honestly, this is one of the problems I see in motor racing these days, that drivers bounce around between teams and series. It’s the worst thing you can do.
“When you work with younger drivers, they’re growing as drivers but they are also growing as people. Sixteen, 17, 18 years old, they are going from boys to men, but they are doing it in motor racing which is a very expensive sport and one that has so much pressure. We have developed the strategies and techniques to help them understand how to handle things, but it’s never perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes, the driver makes mistakes, things happen. The Kaisers understood that. The key to Kyle’s success is that he was patient and able to trust the team 100 percent, which gave us the freedom to work.”
When 2017 dawned, it was with Kaiser as mentor to 19-year-old Nicolas Dapero, who moved up to the Indy Lights team after one year in Pro Mazda that saw him earn a victory and three podium finishes. The original plan was to keep Dapero in the Pro Mazda series for one more year, but Juncos and Dapero’s family made the decision to move him up to the Indy Lights series early to give him a chance to have a proper amount of time to develop into the series, as Kaiser did in 2015.
“Nico’s situation is very similar to Kyle’s, as they both moved up earlier than originally anticipated. Nico came to us with only experience in karts when he entered the 2016 Pro Mazda series. From the beginning we planned to take things at a pace that would give him time to grow and develop into the car and series. He had a great second half of the 2016 season picking up a few podiums and finishing the year off with a win at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. After the season was over we sat down and made the decision to move him up to Indy Lights where he would have the chance to have a veteran teammate and solid foundation to build from. I am looking forward to continuing our work with Nico.”
Kaiser began his sophomore Indy Lights season in 2016 with a bang, earning a pole and two podium finishes in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. When this season started instead with a sixth and a fourth-place finish, the entire team regrouped in Indianapolis and started over. Their ability to immediately battle back set the tone for the remainder of the season.
“When you expect to win and it doesn’t happen, then you are in shock and wonder what’s wrong. You start focusing on the wrong thing and think something is the matter when it’s not. We started over after St. Pete, had a good long talk, and tried to take some of the pressure out of Kyle’s mind. We said, let’s go race-by-race and apply everything we are learning. It was a matter of focusing on execution every lap and having a plan, and from that moment it was a black-and-white situation. We turned things around and started a proper championship.”
Kaiser reeled off four straight podiums after St. Pete, capped by a win at Indianapolis that put him in the championship lead – a lead he would not relinquish despite increasing pressure as the season began to wind down. It was up to Juncos and the team to keep the mental game in top form, the success of which was on display at Toronto when Kaiser took his first weekend sweep. From there, it was a matter of hanging on through difficulties at Mid-Ohio, managing the oval at Gateway and surviving the downpour at Watkins Glen.
“Take away the championship, and Kyle probably wins the race at Gateway. But there was so much on the table that we didn’t need it. He had so much pressure on him, but that was a good experience. You should be able to have all this pressure on you and still perform at 100 percent but this time, knowing how close he was to the championship, it really came down to him. It was in his hands, only he could mess it up and that’s the situation he was in for the last few races. It was a calculated process and a good experience for him. No question that because of everything he dealt with this year, he will be a better Kyle Kaiser going forward.”
At first glance, it seems somewhat risky to combine a rookie driver and a rookie team, although Juncos made its first foray into IndyCar this season fielding Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra at the Indianapolis 500. And Juncos believes the relationship between team and driver will benefit both as Kaiser figures out what kind of IndyCar driver he will be.
“He will be the smart guy, like Dario Franchitti, guys who are more focused on strategy and the mental side of racing, guys who don’t crash a lot. He can be aggressive when he needs to be, but smart when he needs to be as well. I think he has a good future. I want someone who can read the situation and have the perception to know when a move is wrong or right, to keep the car in one piece and go for points. Really, there won’t be any pressure next year. We are a new team, he is a rookie driver, so it’s a perfect combination. If he were to go to an established team, everything that happens would be his fault so that’s pressure. For us, if we went with an established driver, there’s pressure for us as a team. If something’s not right, it’s our fault. Now, we’ll work together like we have in the past and learn as we go.”
For now, Kaiser has kept a low profile as the new IndyCar aero kit has been refined ahead of the January open testing calendar. But even that has been by design, as Juncos encouraged him to separate himself from the pressure of the championship season and energize for the task ahead.
“After the banquet, I told him to take a step back, not to think about racing for a month or so, because you need to live like a regular human being without all that pressure. Then, in January, we’ll have time to talk about what we’re going to do as a team – the technical aspect, what our approach will be as a new team, our expectations. We’re looking forward to continuing our relationship with Kyle. He’s so open and everyone knows who he is and what he does. He’s a simple guy: you’ll never see him with an attitude, no matter how many championships he wins. He treats everyone with respect and he’s still the same guy he was four years ago. We are very excited about 2018.”