Kyle Kaiser was 9 years old when he attended one of his first Indy car races and watched Sebastien Bourdais in the San Jose Grand Prix.
Bourdais signed the California kid’s hat and took a picture with him. Kaiser instantly became a fan of the driver who won the San Jose street-course race two of the three times it was contested from 2005-07 on his way to becoming a four-time Indy car champion.
Now 22 and about to make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut with Juncos Racing, Kaiser couldn’t help but do a doubletake when he saw Bourdais sitting next to him at an offseason drivers’ meeting.
“I was sitting by him and I’m like, ‘That’s the dude, the guy I used to watch, and he’s sitting next to me,’” Kaiser said with a grin about Bourdais, who won the 2018 season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11, to push his career win total to 37, sixth on the all-time list. “Growing up, that was the dude. He was winning everything. I was like, ‘Man, I want to be like that.’”
Did Kaiser divulge his affinity for the Frenchman?
“No way!” Kaiser said.
When advised that a longtime fan had become one of his new competitors, the 39-year-old Bourdais was amused.
“It’s flattering, but it also makes me feel very old,” Bourdais said. “But that’s OK. I am, so I can’t really say anything. I was a kid when I arrived, but I’m not anymore.”
If nothing else, Kaiser wants to show he belongs in the series. It’s admittedly a modest goal for the 2017 champion of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. He will make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix on April 7 at ISM Raceway (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). It’s also a track where he won in Indy Lights.
Kaiser will also drive the No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in three additional races: the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12 and the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 27.
“It’s all new,” Kaiser said. “Everything I’m doing is new, so I’m coming at it with an open mind, a little confident, but cautiously optimistic. That’s kind of my approach. I like to take it easy to start, get to learn, get comfortable. That’s kind of like my approach for everything.”
He eased into getting acclimated in the preseason open test at ISM Raceway, when he was last out of 23 cars on the speed chart and the team decided not to run on the final day of the test because it had accomplished its goals. But once he gets comfortable, Kaiser is confident the results will come.
“I want to go out and show that I can hold my own, that I’m capable of running with these guys,” Kaiser said. “Obviously there’s not a lot of expectations on us, first time in an Indy car for me. I just want to go out and show I can handle it. That’s my goal.
“I’m realistic. I don’t want to go out there to try to prove something driving like I’m a crazy guy, going out there and trying to put it in the first corner on the first lap and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to make something happen.’ That’s not how I won the (Indy Lights) championship last year. I took a little more cautious approach. Take it easy on the first lap, get situated, show you can finish the races. I finished every race last year. If I can finish every race this year, that’s a win in my book – that and to be competitive.”
Juncos Racing made its Verizon IndyCar Series debut last year in the Indy 500 as Sebastian Saavedra finished 15th and Spencer Pigot 18th. That was a precursor to this season’s larger commitment — Austrian newcomer Rene Binder drove the No. 32 Chevrolet on the streets of St. Petersburg on March 11 in the first of his four races. Each driver could be retained for more races.
Kaiser has driven the past four years for Juncos Racing in the Mazda Road to Indy developmental ladder. He won three races, including on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, last year. He celebrated three other wins in the three previous years.
While a Verizon IndyCar Series newcomer, Kaiser has always had ambition since meeting Bourdais. At about that same time in his life, his father Jeff met actor Paul Newman, a longtime racing enthusiast and Indy car team co-owner. Newman signed a hat at a go-kart race.
“I took the hat and signed right next to Newman’s name,” Kaiser said. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, two great drivers.’”
His father’s reaction was to be expected.
“My dad was very upset,” Kaiser said. “I signed the hat right next to Paul Newman’s signature and my dad was not happy. He was like, ‘Kyle, this is one of a kind!’ And I’m like, ‘I guess I’ll have to make it to INDYCAR to make it worth something.”
Now that he’s made it to INDYCAR, Kaiser says he won’t get caught up in hero worship when he races Bourdais. The rookie says he learned a long time ago to refer to cars by numbers and not the drivers’ names. It’s best not to have an emotional connection to his competitors.
“I can put that aside,” he said.
Then again, he didn’t hesitate when asked the number on Bourdais’ car.
“Eighteen,” Kaiser said, laughing. “That was my number in Indy Lights.”