LONG BEACH, Calif. â There was a time in Kyle Kaiserâs life when he thought thatÂ coming home as a professional athlete to perform in front of friends and family would mean slinging the pigskin around Candlestick Park.
Football, the Santa Clara, Calif., native and lifelong 49ers fan admits, was among his first loves. Racing, of course, was a love, too, and he managed to keep the wickÂ burning with both flames throughout much of his childhood. Half the year was filled with go-kart races, the other half honing his dual-threat skills with quarterback gurus.
It wasnât until halfway through his high school career that Kaiser realized the hard truth that if he was going to pursue one sport seriously, heâd have to sacrifice the other.
âThat was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life,â Kaiser, 22, remembers. âItÂ was two things that I love. âŚ But when I thought about it, racing was something I could see myself doing after high school.Â Hard as it was to admit, I couldnât say that about football.â
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Never blessed with prototypical quarterback size and competing for snaps with eventual Washington recruit at UCLA transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels, Kaiser decided ahead of his junior year that it was time to hang up the spikes.
Looking back, the Juncos Racing driver has no regrets. After all, heâs reached the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, the Verizon IndyCar Series. Still, there was always a part of him that longed to test his skills onÂ an NFL field â a wish he thought heâd never get to fulfill.
But a few years ago, KaiserÂ sawÂ then-IndyCar drivers Josef Newgarden and Sage Karam were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, conducted annually in Indianapolis, to run the gamut of drills reserved for evaluating NFL prospects.
âWhen I saw that,â Kaiser remembers, I was like, âOh my god, Iâm so jealous. I have to get to IndyCar, so I can do that!â â
Three years, five Indy Lights wins, 18 podiums and a championship later, and Kaiser has made it to IndyCar. Last week, Kaiser debuted at ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix, where he delivered an impressive performance in qualifying (14th) before finishing 21st in the race. This weekend, Kaiser will drive in front of dozens of friends and family members, who are making the trip down from northern California to see him compete on the streets of Long Beach. Kaiser is thrilled to be able to show off his driving skills, but maybe not as thrilled as he was in February when he got to take advantage of his newfound status as IndyCar driver.
Still an avid football fan, Kaiser knew the combine was coming back to Indianapolis, so he sent an email â OK, more than one, he admits â to IndyCar PR to see ifÂ the series planned to take part.
They hadnât for years, he was told, but would look into it. For weeks, Kaiser waited. It wasnât until opening day of the combine that he finally received the email heâd been anxiously awaiting.
âWe got something put together if you want to come out,â Kaiser remembers it saying.
âIâll be there,â he replied immediately.
Beyond excited, Kaiser met up with anÂ Arizona Cardinals scout who guided him through a host of drills â the 40-yard dash, the L-cone, the shuttle dash and the broadÂ jump. Youâd better believe he remembers how he did. Kasierâs broad jump came in around 8 feet, 11 inches â which would have put him 12th among quarterbacks, a couple inches ahead of expected first-round pick out of USC, Sam Darnold.
However, what Kaiser can be most proud of is the 4.83 40-yard dash he posted. While not exactly Michael Vick level, it would have made him the eighth quickest quarterback at the combine, ahead of heraldedÂ dual-threat signal-caller Baker Mayfield (4.84) from Oklahoma.
âI was really happy with my performance,â Kaiser said. âI wanted to put some numbers down that I was happy with. Obviously, as drivers, weâre not training for the combine, but I think I did pretty well.â
For Kaiser, taking his shot at the NFL combine was the thrill of a lifetime, but of course his primary focus remains on his day job. Fortunately, his IndyCar debutÂ was almostÂ as impressive as his combine stint, said a friend and former Juncos Indy Lights driver.
âQualifying at Phoenix was a huge moment for him,â said Conor Daly, who will race against Kaiser at the Indianapolis 500 this year. âSo impressive. He out-qualified (Scott) Dixon, a couple Andretti (Autosport) guys and a bunch of other fast guys.â
Daly knows all too well how important it is for young driversÂ to deliver results immediately. Fail to flash early in your career and you might never get another opportunity.
âI just told him to enjoy it and learn,â Daly added.Â âRookies are so harshly judged in this series now. I think the rookies who get their chance, whether its (Zach) Veach or Kaiser, this is a tough game to learn, so when you have those golden moments in Phoenix, thatâs huge for your stock as a driver.â
Kaiserâs aware ofÂ how much pressure there is on him to deliver results â especially since his deal with Juncos this year calls for just four races.Â Having spentÂ three years in Indy Lights, Kasier saw more than a couple of hisÂ friends and former colleagues wash out of IndyCar.
It also doesnât make Kaiserâs job any easier that fellow rookie, Schmidt Peterson Motorsportsâ Robert Wickens, is making the adjustment to IndyCar look like a piece of cake.
âThey need to change the way they refer to rookies,â Kaiser said with a laugh. âLike they do in football. A guy with as much experiences as (29-year-old) Wickens is like a red-shirt rookie. Iâm a true rookie. Not to take any credit away from Wickens, because heâs been incredible his first two races, but I donât consider him a true rookie.
âFor me. being with a rookie driver on a new team, weâre just trying to be competitive and learn as much as we can. Weâre not going out there to expecting to win right now. Just getting that experience, running as many laps as we can and showing we have a competitive car is our biggest goal.â
Ayello writes for the Indianapolis Star, a USA TODAY Network property