“This is absolutely the greatest story of my life.” -- Kyle Kaiser, 4:57 p.m., May 19, 2019
That sentence, spoken over the radio by Kyle Kaiser to his Juncos Racing crewmates after he secured the 33rd and final position for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, embodied his team, their effort and the iconic race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As great a story as Kaiser and Juncos securing the 33rd and final position might be, though, it isn’t the David-vs.-Goliath impossibility it’s being made out to be. It wasn’t a surprise that Kaiser and Juncos made the field. It was a surprise that Fernando Alonso and McLaren didn’t. One’s failure doesn’t diminish the other’s success.
While McLaren waited nearly 48 hours to get a backup car on track, Juncos used 42 hours to turn a road-course car Kaiser last raced at in March at Circuit of the Americas into a speedway car -- because that’s what race teams do. When a problem arises, they organize, assemble and attack.
In the case of Ricardo Juncos’ race team, it almost didn’t happen. After Kaiser crashed during Friday’s practice session, the team considered scrapping everything. The task of rebuilding and refitting a car that wasn’t intended for Indianapolis Motor Speedway seemed impossible, given the lack of time.
“My first thinking was we just need to go home,” Juncos said Sunday, “because there is no way we can come back from this situation. But then the team said, ‘Let's put back together the car we used at Austin.’”
Kaiser smiles at the thought of that pivotal decision. The car was in pieces. It wasn’t designed to race at Indy. It would take round-the-clock work by the team’s 25 full-time employees and every part-timer to get it rolling.
“It was a discussion I had with (Ricardo) and other advisers as to whether I wanted to do this,” Kaiser said Monday after practice. “We knew there was a lot on the line, including money. It was a very big decision that we all had to come to together. We decided we aren’t the quitting type. We felt like we could pull it off, but it was a big gamble.”
A gamble the team knew wasn’t beyond its reach. Kaiser had been consistently and competitively fast during practice before the crash. If anybody could make this happen, it was this group.
“To the outside, it’s a Cinderella story,” Kaiser said. “But we’ve been together for a while and I’ve seen these guys go through things just as hard as that and come through on top. I knew all along that they had it in them. Obviously, there were things outside our hands that probably helped play into our hand for qualifying to make the race and make everything look great. But we gave everything we had, and that was enough.”
The idea that Juncos is some miraculous upstart team that somehow stumbled into the Indy 500 because of McLaren’s shocking ineptitude isn’t just misguided -- it’s inaccurate. People inside INDYCAR are aware of the team’s talent. Race engineer Tom Brown has been in the business for decades, having worked with the Penske, Forsythe and Bettenhausen teams. Crew chief Rich Jones won the 2017 Clint Brawner Award, which acknowledges the Indy 500 crew chief who exemplifies "the mechanical and scientific creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, dedication, enthusiasm and expertise" of the legendary mechanic. Brown was again honored with the award Monday, making him an extremely rare back-to-back winner.
Kaiser, too, has the respect of his peers. Indy will be just his sixth race in the NTT IndyCar Series, but he has an impressive resume in the Road to Indy ladder series, having won the Indy Pro 2000 championship in 2014 and the Indy Lights championship in 2017 after finishing third in 2016. All with Juncos, much of it with the same people who made Sunday’s story happen.
In the moments leading up to Sunday’s Last Row Shootout, that talented but exhausted group was still tweaking the car. The balance wasn’t right, there were concerns about overheating. Nobody had slept. Meals were brought in, as were toothbrushes and deodorant.
“We're talking about the Indy 500,” Juncos said after Kaiser qualified. “I was so tired last night, but when I tried to sleep, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking what it is we can do on the race car for today. … (This) morning we were working until the last minute. We were rushing to put it together because we kept working on the last little things to the last minute. I think that was the difference.”
Juncos vs. McLaren wasn’t the story of a tiny, inexperienced, underfunded team that stumbled into the 500 because a huge, experienced, wealthy team screwed up. It’s the story of a team that was prepared, organized and better than its opponent. In this sport and this race, better means 0.0129 seconds over 10 miles. Juncos Racing didn’t back into the final spot on the grid: It earned it.
Ever since Kaiser shouted that sentence -- “this is absolutely the greatest story of my life” -- he’s been on a tour of gratitude.
“I thank them every time I see them,” said Kaiser, who will start in the final position when the green flag drops shortly after noon on Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts Radio Network. “I’m forever in debt to them. I’m not trying to downplay what they did, but it doesn’t surprise me that they would do that. I knew all along that whatever the scenario was, that was the work ethic of this team and these guys. They have more heart and more passion than anybody I’ve ever met. I really appreciate everything they did to get me back out there, and I know they’d do it again in a heartbeat.”