PRUETT: A salute to Dalton Kellett

PRUETT: A salute to Dalton Kellett

After deciding last month to exit A.J. Foyt Racing​ following t​hree years and 33 IndyCar races, Dalton Kellett had the sound of someone who was at peace with closing a major chapter in his life. His story is one we’ve seen in racing before, but rarely have we had its arc play out in such an interesting manner.

The Canadian held a rare place in the sport, reserved for those who want to race but don’t need to earn a living through driving. Blessed to be born into a highly successful family, Kellett learned to love motorized vehicles while he was in diapers and went on to spend more than half his life competing, racing, and training on the open-wheel ladder to reach IndyCar.

And like some of his predecessors who’ve had more funding than race-winning speed to offer, a point was reached where Kellett came to terms with where his future was headed. Despite the occasional highs that come with a strong day of qualifying or surviving a crash-fest and finishing ahead of some stars and champions, the novelty of running towards the back of the field eventually wears off. When that starts to happen, as it did for Kellett, bigger questions about the purpose of one’s life start to emerge.

“This wasn’t something I just decided,” Kellett tells RACER. “This was something I’d been mulling over and working through my head for the last third of the season or so. An important thing for me was definitely being able to do this on my terms as far as how I wanted to either stay or continue.”

It’s the opposite of what our typical racing heroes go through as they contemplate retirement. Slight losses in speed and increasingly infrequent trips to victory lane weigh heavily and become unsolvable problems. Amid the progressive distancing from poles and podium finishes, the joy of driving diminishes, the offers to remain with the best teams tend to dwindle, and a natural evolution occurs as the old lions are replaced by the younger generation.

For many who pay for the privilege to race in IndyCar, the triggers for calling time on their journey are altogether different. Once-enthusiastic sponsors lose interest. The willingness by family to write large checks reaches an end. Or, in the case of Kellett, one’s full potential was reached.

Having stepped onto the Road To Indy at the age of 18 in 2012, he spent eight years learning all he could before joining the Foyt team in 2020. During his time on the RTI, Kellett also earned a ​degree in engineering physics at Queen’s University in his native Canada, which spoke to his high ambitions and work ethic.

Kellett says he mulled over his future for the final third of the 2022 season before deciding to step away from A.J. Foyt Racing. Motorsport Images

Separate from his studies, Kellett invested a lot of time in bettering himself behind the steering wheel, and despite the absence of wins and impressive championship placings, progress was being made and demonstrated on the run from USF2000 to Indy Lights. The same could be said for his time with Foyt where serious commitments to fitness, the hiring of a driver coach—eight-time IndyCar race winner Ryan Briscoe, in particular, and constant studying of onboard data and video was done in the name of improving his pace.

But all of that coaching and investment on driver development wasn’t going to turn Kellett into the next Alex Palou or Callum Ilott. That isn’t a bad thing, nor is it a critical statement. Kellett remained on the IndyCar tour for as long as continued professional growth was realistic.

In a better team, there’s no doubt Kellett would have more impressive results to show for his time in IndyCar, but we’re talking about turning finishes of 22nd and 23rd into 18ths and 19ths. Rather than continuing to spend high seven-figure sums on a passion that reached its peak outcome, the 29-year-old went into the last races of the season preparing for a change of direction.

Amid questions of whether he’ll return next year for the Indianapolis 500 or his home race on the streets of Toronto, Kellett says he isn’t willing to completely close the door to rejoining the IndyCar field or competing in other series, but he also acknowledges there are no immediate plans to continue driving.

Focusing on the family-owned K-LINE power line and energy-related businesses is where his talents and degree in engineering physics will be applied.

“I’m cognizant that I’m really fortunate to have my engineering background, and obviously K-LINE, and a lot of other things going on in my life that may make it easier to make that decision,” he says. “Where I’m at right now is if the right opportunity came up, whether it’s IndyCar or something else, I would consider it. But I’ve got a lot of other stuff that I want to do in my life.

“Racing was always going to be ‘Career 1’ for me. My dad and I have talked a lot about K-LINE over the years . That’s definitely something I’m really passionate about. The transition to that was closer than it was far away, it was probably going to be this year or next year, anyway. There’s definitely the desire to drive to get back out there, but it has to be right for me and in the absence of that, I’d rather just have things be my decision.”

The Canadian’s best IndyCar finish was a 12th at WWTR in 2021. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

Kellett had an opportunity to remain with the Foyt team, albeit at an increased cost. While that wasn’t a deterrent, it was facing the strong likelihood of another season of fighting over unrewarding finishing positions that stopped making sense. It’s here where I appreciate Kellett’s humility and honesty.

He was a mortal — closer to one of us than the racing gods we worship — who dedicated his life to driving and went as far as his talent allowed. A more selfish version of Kellett would have ridden his racecar driver lifestyle out until he reached his 40s; I worked with plenty of drivers back in the day who burned through their parents’ wealth just to avoid getting a real job.

I’m also thankful for the Kellett family’s support of the Foyt team through some of its most precarious financial issues. As ABC Supply ended its 15-year run as the team’s primary sponsor, it went into 2020 in dire need of funded drivers and the Kelletts were part of the solution to plug the holes and stabilize the program.

They went all-in for 2021 with a full-season deal as the team hoped and prayed the jokers at ROKiT would pay their bills. There were serious concerns about ROKiT either leaving for another team or stepping away during the offseason leading into 2022, but K-LINE was there, rock solid as usual, making sure engineers and mechanics and all kinds of crew members had jobs and security. And when ROKiT finally bailed halfway through the year, Kellett’s car and sponsorship was a backstop where no worries were required.

I’ll miss having Kellett on the grid. I know he was an easy target for fans, but stories like his are important to any sport. As a high-achieving human, a normal person among deities, he connected with more fans than I can recall for someone who was never destined for driving stardom. Throw in the crucial role he and his family played in helping the Foyts to bridge some worrying years that allowed the team to find new funding and make a competitive reboot with Santino Ferrucci and Benjamin Pedersen, and there’s no question he left IndyCar in a better place.

If Kellett’s remembered largely for keeping one of the sport’s most beloved entrants and a dozen-plus people safe and employed at their lowest point, I’d say that’s a legacy to appreciate.​ ​

“There’s no part of me that’s bitter,” Kellett says. “I really hope Santino and Benjamin go out there and have a lot of success.”