Mike Hull, the managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing and Scott Dixon’s strategist, remembers the day his stepson, Taylor Kiel, returned from Indiana University after his junior year and told his mother, Melinda, that he wanted to quit school to go racing.
“She freaked out, understandably,” Hull said.
Hull’s response was to help Kiel see the underbelly of the sport, a place where the hours are long and hands get dirty. Hull proposed Kiel spend the summer working at what is now Indy Racing Experience, once an INDYCAR SERIES team that today prepares display cars and the sport’s popular two-seater program in a building south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kiel’s first days were eye-opening.
“They handed me a cart with bolts and parts and told me to build a show car,” Kiel said. “I just looked at the parts; I had no idea how to put the thing together.”
But Kiel figured it out, with some help. That initiation began his indoctrination into what it takes to thrive in motorsports.
Kiel had gone to IU as an unrecruited football walk-on from Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High School, tough and determined as a linebacker but too small to make a difference. He tried playing safety, but he never got inserted into a game.
“I had a big heart, so I’d just run into people as hard as I could,” he said.
Similar to his approach to football, Kiel figured that if Hull wanted him to learn racing the hard way, he would charge forward full steam, hard knocks and all.
“That was a good summer for me,” Kiel said. “It was like one of those freshman weed-out classes – you either succeed and you make it to the next level or you realize pretty quickly that you don’t like it. I knew that going in, so failure really wasn’t an option.”
Kiel also realized he needed to finish school, which he did to his mother’s delight, majoring in business with a focus on sports marketing management. But racing was in his heart, which had him on the phone with INDYCAR teams as soon as he was available to work. Vision Racing and Andretti Autosport didn’t have openings, which led Hull to call Sam Schmidt, then predominantly an Indy Lights team owner. Schmidt agreed to have team manager Chris Griffis interview Kiel even as Kiel didn’t own any tools and admittedly “didn’t know what I was doing.”
“But,” Kiel told Griffis in the interview, “I’m willing to work hard and follow direction.”
That is the essence of a walk-on, and it led to the lowest position on the team. Kiel didn’t care; he was chasing his dream, making enough money to buy beers for the weekend and pay rent at the house he shared with buddies.
“He started by sweeping floors,” Schmidt said. “Nothing fancy, but that’s what he did, and he worked his way up through the entire organization.”
Hull had said working on an Indy Lights team would give Kiel a well-rounded perspective on how a team functions, and he was right. Kiel learned to fix gearboxes, install engines, build uprights and fabricate, versatility that would later pay dividends.
“What Indy Lights does is force you to do everything,” Kiel said. “My whole time there (2008-11) our structure was having a crew chief and a second mechanic – that was the extent of the people working on the car. I would say out of Indy Lights I could have stepped into a fabrication or a machinist’s role, I could have been a crew chief, a gearbox guy, I could have worked on dampers, any of those things because I had the experience.
“Working in Indy Lights also gives you a lot of face time with the engineer, the driver and the team owner because it’s a small, tight-knit environment, and you certainly can’t hide. I would consider that my residency, and if I see that on a resume today, that person goes to the top of the list because I know what they’ve been through.”
Not “hiding” meant Kiel’s work was on full display, and management noticed. In short order he rose to becoming one of the youngest crew chiefs and then team managers in the series. The organization won two championships in Kiel’s Indy Lights stint, including Josef Newgarden’s title in 2011. Kiel said the expectation of success instilled by Schmidt, Griffis and engineer Tim Neff set the foundation for the career of his that has followed.
Schmidt’s organization has undergone many changes over the years, from adding Ric Peterson as a co-owner to securing Arrow Electronics as a sponsor to striking a partnership with McLaren Racing, one of Formula One’s historic teams and brands. But Kiel is among the staples, now 14 seasons in service. He moved to the INDYCAR team following the 2011 season and became the team’s managing director in the fall of 2018. Last year, he was elevated to team president, the equivalent of a walk-on who became the team captain.
And, Kiel is only 34 years old.
It is not lost on Kiel that the team’s top car, piloted by second-year driver Pato O’Ward, is second in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings, one position ahead of Dixon, the six-time series champion that has Hull has managed. In fact, the three leading candidates to win this year’s INDYCAR championship are led by Melinda Hull’s favorite men.
“What I’ve seen Mike and the (Ganassi) organization accomplish has always been the benchmark for what I want to accomplish,” Kiel said. “That path has been paved over the past 15 or 20 years, and I want to create a team here that can do that and be held in the same regard.”
Clearly, Kiel and Arrow McLaren SP are ascending in INDYCAR. O’Ward finished fourth in last year’s standings, is tied for the most wins this year (two) and trails Ganassi’s Alex Palou by 39 points heading to the series’ next race, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on Sunday, Aug. 8 in Nashville, Tennessee.
The McLaren partnership put Kiel and Schmidt with the team’s F1 program during the recent British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and they continue to learn things that can help the INDYCAR program win more races and a season championship.
“I’m extremely proud of who he is and what he’s done,” Hull said of Kiel, who was 5 when Hull married Melinda, then a Bell Racing helmet representative. “I wish I could take credit for it in a fatherly way, but what I appreciate about Taylor is he sees the big picture, and he grew up knowing what that means in motor racing.
“Chris Griffis was such a good mentor of young guys, and Taylor is a product of that. Taylor became a crew chief on Sam’s Indy Lights ‘house’ car, they won championships and then he moved up to the INDYCAR team. He worked his way through the system, and he understands completely how the system works from all angles.
“Now look where he is.”