Kyle Kirkwood is U.S. hope for F1, but cost is high

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Kyle Kirkwood is an American racing champion with a Formula One dream. Meanwhile, the world’s most popular motorsports circuit is desperate to catch America’s attention.

It’s a match made in heaven, right? Not so fast. Kirkwood, a 19-year-old from Jupiter, Fla., is racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, but he’s still a long way from achieving his dream.

“We’d love to see more American drivers, especially in Formula One,” said Jeff Barrow of Honda Performance Development, who manages the F3 and F4 Americas series. “We’ve lacked that for quite a long time. We’ve got our own programs here; that’s the problem with being on the big island. We get isolated in what this country wants to do.”

In the U.S., NASCAR and IndyCar dominate the motorsports scene. If a path to F1 exists, it’s expensive and complicated. Just ask Kirkwood, who has wrapped up championships in both series he’s raced in this season and is still trying to figure out his next step.

Kirkwood has dominated the inaugural season of F3 in the U.S., winning 13 of 15 races leading into the U.S. Grand Prix. In the USF2000 series, he won a record-breaking 11 straight races to claim the title. On Friday, he took pole for the first of two races Saturday, with a lap time nearly 2 seconds faster than his closest competitor.

“You’ll be seeing a lot more of Kyle Kirkwood in the future,” said Bill Abel, team principal of Abel Motorsports, Kirkwood’s F3 Americas team.

His conundrum has less to do with skill than funding.

“It’s an expensive sport, no doubt about that,” he said. “But if you do it the right way and you actually work really hard at it, you can get to the top level. It just takes hard work, just like everything else.”

Kirkwood would love to take off for Europe and Japan, test himself against the world’s best young drivers and compete for a spot in F1. But the most logical option is to take the money he’s being offered at home. Mazda has offered a $325,000 scholarship to compete in the Pro Mazda Championship, which accompanies most IndyCar events.

 

Even that won’t cover the full cost of competing. It’s something Max Crawford is well aware of, and one of the reasons he decided to develop the F3 car with Ligier. Crawford estimates the cost of running an F3 car for a season is around $250,000, compared with about $175,000 for F4 and $1.2 million for Indy Lights, the developmental series for IndyCar. Overseas, the cost goes up.

“Somebody needs to pick (Kirkwood) up and help him now,” Crawford said. “He’s shown his talent in both (F4 and F3) series and done well in USF2000.”

The topic of an American F1 driver came up Thursday during the drivers’ press conference, where Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean agreed that the biggest hurdle to the sport catching on in the U.S. is the lack of an American driver. Haas is the circuit’s only U.S.-based team, but its drivers (Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen) are from France and Denmark.

Meanwhile, Kirkwood is already older than the next European driver to get a shot. Lando Norris, an 18-year-old from the United Kingdom, is set to race with McLaren next year.

That doesn’t deter Kirkwood, who hopes to get the funding to test himself on the European F3 series or SuperFormula in Japan. Even if he fails, he knows options will still exist for him back home.

“I’ve watched F1 since I was really little and love all the drivers in it,” Kirkwood said. “I’m going to shoot high, and hopefully I can get my goal. If I fall short, obviously IndyCar is a very good option and sports cars are a very good option.”

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