WATKINS GLEN, New York – Even rain in the season finale at Watkins Glen International couldn’t dampen the spirits of Kyle Kaiser, the newest champion of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.
A third-place finisher in the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder’s top rung last year, Kaiser returned to capture three wins and eight podiums in 18 races this season on his way to the title and $1 million Mazda scholarship which secures at least three races in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Kaiser and other award winners in the Mazda Road to Indy were feted at a championship celebration tonight in Watkins Glen, a day after the Soul Red Finale weekend for all three levels.
A model of consistency all year, Kaiser pointed to July weekend sweep in the doubleheader on the streets of Toronto for breaking open the championship possibilities.
“I’d say Toronto was definitely the turn-on moment,” said Kaiser, driver of the No. 18 Dallara IL-15/Mazda for Juncos Racing.
“We came into that weekend knowing we had to have a good weekend to really build a buffer. That’s been the goal every single race weekend we went into. We’re like, ‘We have to execute this weekend and build a buffer so at the end of the year we can afford a lackluster finish.’
“You don’t know could happen – mechanical or whatever else – so we wanted to build as big of a lead as we could for the final two races, and we did that. It afforded us the opportunity to have a rough race here and there.”
The 21-year-old from Santa Clara, California’s four-year run with Juncos Racing includes one season in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, the second rung of the MRTI ladder, before moving up to Indy Lights in 2015. Kaiser keyed off the success of former teammate Spencer Pigot, who won the 2015 Indy Lights championship before advancing to the Verizon IndyCar Series, as confidence to continue moving forward and never consider leaving Juncos – even though it took three Indy Lights seasons to claim the title.
“The biggest thing is I saw the potential in the team and I saw their work ethic,” said Kaiser. “Everything they did said ‘championship.’
“I didn’t want to leave somewhere where I felt I know I could win a championship with this team. Obviously, they had Spencer there. He was a really big help for me, being able to watch him and see him win championships helped develop me. Everything they do for their drivers, from the driver development program to just the way they communicate with me, has helped make me a better driver.”
With Juncos Racing entering two cars in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and targeting a bigger role in the Verizon IndyCar Series next season, the door is open for Kaiser to continue the relationship.
“Of course it’s a possibility,” said Kaiser. “I know they want to move up and those talks are going to start now. That’s the big thing. I’m going into it with an open mind. I don’t want to just commit blindly before I see what the options are, but we’ll see what happens.”
Team owner Ricardo Juncos was especially proud of his young driver’s growth throughout his progression in the Mazda Road to Indy. Kaiser clinched the championship by just starting Sunday’s race, so his seventh-place finish at Watkins Glen was fine with everyone on the team.
“He did everything he had to do,” said Juncos. “The last three races, we were so smart. We were just playing with the calculator (to know where Kaiser needed to finish to keep the competition at bay), to be honest. … Normally in the last race you have three or four drivers fighting for the same championship. We were able to make a good gap (going into the final race).
“He’s been amazing. He showed everybody. His first year in Indy Lights, he made so many mistakes: crashes and stuff. Now he is the champion and now he has an opportunity in INDYCAR. That is obviously a lot to do with him as a driver and as a person, but it also shows what we can do with a driver.
“Everything played off really good,” Juncos continued. “I’m really happy for him. He’s a very smart, very talented driver, still young. So a good future for him.”
Like any young driver aspiring to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Kaiser dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500. But he’s still going to take time to savor his most recent achievement.
“I don’t think I can say that it has really sunk in,” he said. “It’s cool and we got the (championship) trophy. I know it’s going to happen (racing in the Indy 500), but I don’t know what it’s going to be like when that day comes.
“I’ve been there as a spectator for the race the past five or six years, but I can’t even fathom what my emotions are going to be walking on the stage when they’re introducing me to 300,000 people.
“It’s giving me goose bumps. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s going to be amazing.”