Going into the Indy Invitational, Kyle Schuett was little more than an underdog.
Only a few weeks removed from a POWRi Rookie of the Year award, Schuett, 20, hardly stood out in an entry list that featured stars from NASCAR (Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.), World of Outlaws (Joey Saldana, Daryn Pittman) and others.
That would change by the night’s end, as Schuett drove a masterful evening, leading every lap he competed in to dominate the inaugural event at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and claim his first midget victory.
One week removed from his breakout victory, Speed51.com powered by JEGS caught up with Schuett to discuss his racing beginnings, surprise appearance (and victory) in the Indy Invitational, and how it will affect his career moving forward.
A lot of people don’t know much about you. Who is Kyle Schuett? Where are you from, and how did you get into racing?
“I started in quarter midgets in 2004. I ran in Region 5 Quarters for about four years. We won a dirt grand championship in 2008, in our final season running quarter midgets, then we moved up to a restricted micro-sprint in 2009.
We ran those for a couple years down in Coles County in Charleston, Illinois, and in Indiana. Then we went to the outlaw micro-sprints and we ran with the POWRi Micro Series for a total of three years.
Last year (in 2015), was our first full-season run in a midget. We ran for the rookie of the year in POWRi, won that, and also got fourth in POWRi points.
Essentially, this win was still part of my rookie season.”
You were one of the last ones to get an invite to the Indy Invitational, correct?
“Yes, I actually didn’t get an invite until the day before Thanksgiving. They had their initial 40 drivers, two of them declined it, and I was one of the last two (to get an invite).”
What was that like? Did you have any idea that you were getting an invite, or was it a surprise
“I was actually kind of surprised, to be honest, because I didn’t think I’d stand out enough. I thought, ‘They’ll find someone else to do it.’”
“I was like, ‘You know, I did win rookie of the year,’ but I didn’t know if it would get me invited. I didn’t think it would.”
“I was actually out in the shop working on my micros – we’re running in the Tulsa Shootout at the end of this month – and I was out there working when my mom texted me and said, ‘Hey, you just got an invite to the Indy Invitational.’”
“I said, ‘Oh, are you serious?! Really?!?’”
“I went inside, looked on Twitter, and sure enough, there was an invite for me. It was totally unexpected, to be honest.”
Were you sure you would be able to run in it? Had you already had the conversation to know you would have the vehicle to compete?
“Yeah. If we were one of those people to get an invite, we were going to run it. It was definitely a cool deal to be a part of, and we wanted to be a part of it.
“The car was actually ready. We did all of the maintenance and everything to it after the last race of the season. We did everything to it to get it ready for the Chili Bowl (Nationals), because we already planned on running it.”
“We just had to mount some tires, and we were on our way.”
What were your expectations going into the event?
“I just wanted to keep the car in one piece, and I wanted to make the show. I wanted to be one of the 18 drivers to make the show. I didn’t want to go home empty-handed.
“I really wanted to run in the show, be part of the main event and run the 40 laps, not knowing I would be on the pole for the A-Main and win the thing. I had no idea I was going to be able to do that. I knew we had a good (sponsor) car to race with, but I didn’t know that I was going to be able to run up front, lead every lap we were in and win the show.”
You truly ran with some of the biggest stars in dirt racing – Dave Darland, Kyle Larson and others among them. Was there a moment of surprise to even be competing in such a star-studded field?
“Oh yeah! I was definitely surprised to be a part of it. Those were the guys I grew up looking up to. I mean, you see all of these guys… Dave Darland, the best sprint car driver in the country, basically. You’ve got (Kyle) Larson, (Chris) Bell, who’s an upcoming NASCAR driver, and you’re like “wow. I want to be able to run with those guys.”
“I had raced with a couple of them throughout the year when they’d come around POWRi, and it felt cool to be able to run against them, but to actually beat them? It was a true honor.”
You shocked everyone with your dominance throughout the night. When was the first time you know you had a car that was capable of that?
“We went out for qualifying (there were no hot laps), and the car handled really good, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, maybe we’ve got a really good car.’”
“I didn’t know exactly how fast we were, but when I looked at the time charts, we were third-quick. That’s when I realized we had a really, really good car. That’s a true testament to my crew – Ebby Bergfield, Jaryd Chambers, Dan Myer and my mom (name) and dad (name).
“Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to be that fast. I’m just the driver of the car; they put a really good car underneath me. All I had to do was keep my nose clean and from there on out I was good to go.”
“But I still really didn’t know. After we won our heat race, we actually made a lot of changes from the heat race to the dash. I came out of the car, and said, “No, we’ve gotta tighten this car up, guys. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’”
“I felt kind of bad, because I get out of the car after the heat race, and was telling the guys we had a lot of work to do to this car, and they’re like, “What? You just won a heat race!’, and I said, ‘Yeah, but we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to win tonight.’”
“We tuned on the car a little bit, got it running pretty good and were able to capitalize and get the win.”
The race obviously had its share of issues – fumes, cautions, delays. Did that add to the pressure at all, especially in the later stages when you were positioned so well? Was it making your nerves worse to sit there and wait?
“Oh yeah. I was definitely nervous. I was one of the guys that stayed in their car for about 5-10 minutes, until (track officials) came out and told us it was going to be a 30-45 minute delay.
“I was over there thinking, ‘Are you serious, guys? I’m over here already nervous enough to where I’m about to puke, leading the A Main for $10,000 to win, and you guys are telling me I have to wait 30-45 more minutes?’”
“That was definitely nerve-racking in itself, but I knew we had a good car, and I just had to be patient.
“On the restarts I had to be just patient enough to slow the pace down so slow, because the back of the pack was only about 3-4 car-lengths ahead of me. All I had to do was slow the pace down so I could get enough time after we went green before I hit the lapped cars, because if I would have hit the lapped cars too soon, and a wreck were to happen, I would’ve been right in the mess.
“Just staying back on the field gave me enough time to be able to see the wrecks far enough ahead to slow down and navigate through them.
“Overall, it was definitely nerve-racking in itself, but all I had to do was be patient and use my head out there.”
During the breaks or throughout the day, were there any drivers you went to for advice?
“Actually, no. I never went to anybody for advice or anything. I kind of just stuck to my own thing. I didn’t really go to anybody.
“I did go up and watch a lot of races. I watched the last midget heat race, the one Joey Saldana won. I watched him out there, the way he would run, with the left front right on the berm right at the middle of the corner. He would get a good launch coming out of the corner.
“I kind of used that to my advantage in the dash and the feature. It really helped me out a lot, just having the time to watch the races, but I didn’t really go to anybody for help.”
Late in the race, there was finally some green-flag racing, and lapped traffic became an issue. How stressful was it battling with Tanner Thorson and Spencer Bayston while maneuvering through lapped traffic in the closing laps?
“It was definitely stressful, but I just had to keep myself calm.
“When you’re out there leading the race, and you feel those guys behind you, you just want to go faster, and faster. You really have to tell yourself to slow down, take deep breaths, and make smart moves throughout the field.
When I did show my nose to lapped cars throughout the field, they did give me extra room. I’m thankful that they did and didn’t just try to cut me off, because I know when I was getting lapped a couple years back, or even last year, I gave the leader room hoping that in the future it would come back, and they would be friendly to me, and give me some room so that I would be able to pass them.
“Still, it was definitely hectic. When you’ve got those guys beating on your back bumper, you know that if you make one little mistake, or even move up two inches, they’re going to stick their nose in there. Then the only way to get by them is to chop them, and you risk getting spun out, or getting together with them.
“You just have to make sure you’re calm, don’t overdrive getting into the corner. Use the brakes just enough to get slowed down enough and get a straight, even launch coming off of the corner. Make sure that when you do pass cars, you’re able to pass them clean enough, or make sure you got even with them, just so they know that you’re there and give you that room.”
At the very end, when Tanner Thorson looped his machine trying to pass you off of Turn 4, and you realized that you were going to win, what thoughts went through your mind?
“Wow, we just won our first midget race!”
“I totally forgot it was $10,000 to win at first, until I came off and got out of the car. I saw the check and read that it was $10,000, and was like, ‘Oh, wow! It was $10,000 to win!’”
“At first, the only thing I could think up to that point was “We just won the Indy Invitational, our first midget race,” because that was a pretty special place to win our first midget race. I honestly didn’t even think about the money until after I saw the check.”
One of the things I noticed was how overcome with emotion your family and crew seemed to be. How special was the win for them?
“It was extremely special.
“My dad pulled me aside after the race. We were walking, taking our stuff back, and he said, ‘Man, I’m so proud of you. You drove a perfect race.’”
“My mom was extremely happy for me. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader. No matter if we finish last or finish first, she’s happy with anything. She was so overcome with emotion that I think there were a couple victory lane photos where she was in tears.
My crew guy Jaryd (Chambers) was so happy, because that was his first week working in our shop, getting the car ready. He got the car in top shape to go out and win the race. Ebby Bergfield was very happy with our win. So was Dan (Myer).
We even got my brother Derek (Schuett) to come take a picture with us. His wife Lindsay (Schuett) was the one doing the scoring.
It was really cool to have my whole family there, and to have a bunch of family pictures. We were all just happy in general. I think we were surprised to be able to win it, but we were very happy to pull it off.
A few guys came up to congratulate you after the race. Did anything special stick out in terms of who came up or what they said?
“The special part was meeting Max Papis. That was so cool. When he came up to me, he said, ‘Hey, you drove a heck of a race’, and I said, “thank you, I appreciate it.
“Then he said, ‘Hey, that trophy’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’, and I said ‘Yeah! I love the trophy. I would actually love to have one of your (Max Papis Industries) trophies someday.’”
“Growing up, I’ve always been a fan of Max, back when he used to run with Richard Childress Racing on the road courses and everything. I told him that when he used to run NASCAR, I was always a big fan.
“He came up to me, Spencer Bayston came up to me. Even Tanner Thorson came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, I had to do what I had to do to win the $10,000 at the end of the day,’ and I told him, ‘I don’t blame you.’
“I don’t blame him one bit for trying to get by me to get the win, but it was cool for him to come up and tell me good job.
“There’s a bunch of drivers that congratulated me on social media, like Dave Darland… Cool to see big Keith Kunz congratulate me. Overall, the recognition on social media was very cool by all the fans. For people I’ve never even met to congratulate me was pretty special.”
Putting it all into perspective, what does this all mean to you now that you’ve had a week to reflect on it? Has it begun to soak in?
“No, it still hasn’t sunk in yet. I still kind of think of myself as that normal race car driver; kind of quiet, that just stays back and does his thing to be the best that he can. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I beat those guys, and I don’t think it will for a while.”
Do you have any plans for the trophy or the gold jacket yet?
“I think we’re going to get the jacket framed. My dad’s going to get the check taken down to his work – he wants it in his office – and then I’m going to get the trophy in my room. I’ve got a little spot for it, it’s the only thing in the corner of my room right now. I’m going to keep that, so when I wake up every morning I can see that thing.
Looking at this race in retrospect as the victor, would you like to see this race come back next year? What changes would you make?
“I would love to see the race come back. They have some improvements to do, but I think it was a very good inaugural event.”
“As for changes that I would make, I think they should push the berm out a little bit, because there was a lot of room in the corners, and if they could bring more dirt in and add a little bit more banking, I think they could get the second groove on the wall working.
“I would love to see the event come back I mean, where else can you get 40 of the best midget drivers in one place? And it be able to do it at Bankers Life Fieldhouse… That was absolutely amazing, to be able to roll out for hot laps, and you’re able to look out at the crowd, and it’s absolutely packed, and you see the Bankers Life Fieldhouse jumbotron over the track. It was pretty amazing.
“I would like to see it come back for a second-annual event, but as far as a venue change, I think they can make this one work. Yeah, it’s a short track because it’s indoors, but I don’t know where else they could put it.”
You’re $10,000 richer. Do you have any plans for that money?
“It’s going to go back into the racing fun. We actually took our team out to the beach house in Indiana, and used some of that money for it. Now we’re going to reinvest it in the racing fund, get our program amped up for next year, buy some parts that we need and use it for next year.
What are your plans for the coming year?
“We’re definitely running the Chili Bowl at the start of the year, but my plans for next year are still undecided right now.
“We want to run as many races in a midget as we can. I don’t think we’re going to be tied to a full series next year. I think we’re just going to run as many midget races as we can, whether it’s in USAC or POWRi.
If we start the season out good in USAC or POWRi, maybe we’ll stick to it, but for now we’re just going to run as many midget races as we can, and fill some off weekends with five-to-10 micro races and see what goes from there.
We ran the full season last year, and it was a lot of fun, but it was a – lot – of racing, so I don’t know if we’re going to run a full season again in anything next year.”
-By Aaron Bearden, Speed51.com Midwest Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com