It’s a heck of a burden to lay on a 24-year-old who’s just achieved his first ever IndyCar win. But in Kyle Kirkwood, the signs of latent greatness are there. David Malsher-Lopez reports.
These days, team owner Michael Andretti is far more comfortable sitting in front of the media than he ever was as a driver, but still, it’s not his favorite activity. So it was a pleasant surprise to see him twice visit the Long Beach media center last weekend. But he had good reason: at this venue where he scored his first Indy car win (1986) and his 42nd and final win (2002), he saw three of his drivers finish qualifying in first, third and seventh. The next day, in the race, they were 1-2-4.
Mixed in with the pleasure was the satisfaction of knowing that Andretti Autosport’s form in St. Petersburg (first, second and sixth on the grid) had not been deceptive. The majority of IndyCar drivers and race engineers will tell you St. Pete and Long Beach are disparate in terms of corners, curbs and track surface, despite both being classified as street courses. But this year, at least, AA was the fastest team at both.
Yet for Andretti, who among the current IndyCar team owners has been the most loyal supporter of Indy NXT (née Indy Lights), the qualifying session and race at Long Beach also brought a different gratification: another of his protégés was proving to be the star that he and we knew he could be.
To recap, after becoming the only driver to have won the championship in all three categories on the Road To Indy, Kyle Kirkwood was unable to graduate to IndyCar with Andretti, for whom he’d won the 2021 Lights title. Michael’s Formula 1 dream with Colton Herta had fallen through, so last year the Gainbridge-backed #26 car remained occupied by America’s previous Indy Lights sensation. Andretti did grab one of his 2021 Lights drivers for the 2022 IndyCar season, but that man was the very well funded Devlin DeFrancesco.
So Kirkwood was effectively loaned out, and remarkably the only team that found room for this phenomenon was AJ Foyt Racing. Kirkwood had tested Andretti cars on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course and at Barber Motorsports Park, and so arrived at Foyt knowing what a fast IndyCar should feel like. What he now found in his temporary berth was rather different. The pressure was off because no one expected him to transform Foyt’s squad into front-runners… but no one expected him to have so many incidents, either. While his former Lights rival David Malukas was shining like a rough diamond at Dale Coyne Racing, Kirkwood showed only flashes of form, in between costly incidents. As he honestly put it, “We overachieved some places, and we underachieved by trying to overachieve at some other places…”
For those of us who believed in this kid who scored 31 wins from 50 races on the Road To Indy, plus 26 from 61 races across F1600, F4 US and Formula Regional Americas – a winning percentage across all junior formulas of 62 percent – it was a nervous period. When Kirkwood got the call to replace McLaren-bound Alexander Rossi in the #27 Andretti entry for 2023, we knew he had the potential to match Herta and Romain Grosjean, but how often have we seen potential squandered? After a couple of hard knocks, in his anxiety not to shunt again, a driver can overreact, back away from the edge, lose a fraction of a percentage of pace. And as Wilson Pickett sang, 99-and-a-half just won’t do.
St. Pete was encouraging and dispiriting in turn. Kirkwood looked like a threat for pole, but required two sets of fresh tires to get through to the Firestone Fast Six so had a blunt sword to take on teammates and foes in the final battle. In compromised circumstances, no one expected him to get on the front row, so the subsequent crash looked very much like an unforced error.
Still, he started sixth but, come the race, Kirkwood cooked his fragile alternate tires in the wake of the cars ahead – as did Herta in his pursuit of leader Grosjean – and by the time a reasonable first pitstop window opened, he was down among the backmarkers. That’s why he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Jack Harvey drilled the already-crashed Rinus VeeKay, and Kirkwood launched over the pair of them like Bo Duke in his Dodge Charger. Then at Texas earlier this month, Kirkwood’s race was ruined in a pitlane collision with the man he replaced, Rossi. So what he really needed at Long Beach, more even than victory, were clean, error-free sessions that nonetheless showed him to be a match for his teammates.
Job done. Eleventh in Practice 1, second in Practice 2, fastest in Q1 Group 1, third in Q2, pole position in the Firestone Fast Six, fifth in race day warm-up, victory in the race. Despite losing the lead in the middle stint to Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, and despite, once back in the lead, facing pressure from Grosjean in the third and final stint, Kirkwood was apparently impassive.
“He’s always been that way, even when he raced for us in the Indy NXT series,” remarked a relieved Andretti. “There’s a lot of guys that just don’t know how to win. You can tell when he was out front, he knew what he needed to do. He’s a very smart guy, very confident in his own ability. He’s got all the ingredients to be a future champion many times over.”
Kirkwood himself credited his latest strategist, Bryan Herta – who switched over from son Colton’s car at Texas – for reminding him how to keep his cool.
“Bryan Herta has kind of mentored me through this entire weekend,” he said. “He pretty much told me, ‘If you’re up front, we’ve already done the hard part, the rest of it is pretty easy for you. You’re going to be surprised how easy it is to win a race when you’ve already done the hard work and you’re out front, doing all the right things and you have a fast car.’ He’s exactly right…
“[But] everyone at the team has been calm all weekend long. That helps me as a young driver to keep my head straight. Once I crossed the finish line, I was so happy for myself, so happy for the team, so happy for Michael and everyone that works so hard to make this happen… They work a lot harder than me, if I’m being honest.
“I was trying to hold tears back in the car, which is something I’ve never really felt before all through the ladder system. Through my entire open-wheel ladder series career, I always wanted more. I’d win a bunch of races and be like, ‘OK, I need to get to the next one, keep progressing.’ Today was the first time I was able to actually soak it in and acknowledge I’ve done something incredible.”
And after stating he also benefited from trailing the “so smart” Newgarden, learning how to drive defensively without using up tires and push-to-pass boost, Kirkwood went on to admit that Herta had been right: out in the lead was where he was most comfortable.
“You control everything from the front, which is something that I was used to,” he said. “Not to sound cocky or anything, but I was very used to that in the Road to Indy, leading races, controlling the pace, understanding what I needed to do to save tires and the car in general, make sure I could hit my marks lap after lap, be consistent. This was one of the least nerve-wracking [races] I’ve ever had in IndyCar.”
And that sense of post-race serenity continued as elation melted into relief.
“It’s really just a moment of calmness for me,” he said. “I’ve had almost built-up anxiety that I haven’t been able to do as well as I know I can do. The fact that I’ve been able to do it today, it’s like ‘OK, level off, calm down.’ I’m going to be able to focus on getting more wins now that I have my first one, instead of proving myself.”
Race engineer Jeremy Milless tells Motorsport.com he had his eye on Kirkwood since September 2021, when he saw him triumph against three slightly faster cars in the second Indy Lights race at Portland.
“He qualified fourth and beat one guy at the start,” Milless recalls. “Then at the start of the second race, he passed two cars in one move at Turn 1 as they fought among themselves. I thought, ‘Oh, this kid’s good!’”
Milless’s next encounter with Kirkwood was when he rejoined the team after his rookie season with Foyt. Swiftly, he was impressed by the 24-year-old from Jupiter, FL.
“The only testing we could really do this off-season was in the simulator, and you can really tell when you run a driver how much they can process. If you tell them while they’re in the sim, ‘You need to go 10 feet deeper at this corner,’ and they do that the next lap, that’s a good sign. It means they weren’t needing 100 percent of their mental processor to just drive the car. They were able to take that information onboard and apply it. That was Kyle.”
At Long Beach, circumstances played out somewhat in Kirkwood’s favor in qualifying. A red flag toward the end of Q2 meant that teams were thrown into a dilemma, as IndyCar allowed just one out-lap and flyer to close the segment. Grosjean had to go, because he wasn’t yet in the top six to graduate to the Q3 shootout. Kirkwood, who sat second, felt reasonably secure to sit still and save a fresh set of tires for Q3. Herta also wanted a fresh set for the final showdown, so he too stayed in pitlane… and was subsequently bumped.
In other words, Kirkwood’s pole came in imperfect circumstances for the majority of his rivals. In a straight-up three-way, could he have taken the P1 award anyway?
“Honestly, it’s hard to tell,” says Milless. “With 27 cars out there on a street course, it’s hard to get clear laps in practice. You look at your rolling lap times and your theoreticals, and we were always in the top three and top four. I feel we had a little time on our teammates in practice, so as long as he tied all his best sectors together, I think he’d have been right there.”
There is more than just sheer speed in Kirkwood’s arsenal; as Andretti observed, there’s also composure. But he also can save fuel, carry off-throttle rolling speed through a corner like a series veteran.
Says Milless: “We did almost minimum work with him on that – just showed him data about what we generally do and he just did it. I was really impressed in our middle stint when we were saving fuel to make it further than the rest. The #28 car [Grosjean] pitted, and still while saving fuel and without using push-to-pass, the next lap Kyle did, his in-lap, was his quickest of the stint. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’
“Because we had gone a lap longer than Romain, I thought, ‘Great, fuel’s tight, we have one more lap of fuel to use, so we should have pace on him.’ But unfortunately our car didn’t get quite full so Kyle actually had to hit the exact same fuel number as Romain. And he did it.”
Before he arrived at Andretti in 2017, Milless was race engineer for a young Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, and he comments that, “Kyle is more mature than Josef was at this stage. I’d say it took Josef three years to really be ready to start winning. Obviously now Josef’s great: he’s a rockstar.”
And how does Kirkwood match up to Rossi, with whom Milless worked from 2017-’22?
“Kyle makes his lap time in the slower speed corners,” comes the reply. “He’s really good on the brakes, mid-corner and gets out pretty early. Alex was really good in the high-speed corners and really good under braking – at Long Beach Turn 1, he was always a monster. But sometimes he’d struggle at a corner where you had to roll speed in to get a good exit. At the Indy GP course, for example, it took a while to find something that suited Alex.”
Considering success has appeared to come (relatively) easy to Kirkwood through his career, it’s interesting to hear Milless observe that he has “a little more of a work ethic than Colton.” He continues: “Kyle is the first at the track every day and doesn’t leave until we leave. Colton is super-casual about everything he does, and is… just Colton! Maybe he has a tick more natural speed, but it’s a very, very slight difference; I would say they’re on similar trajectories.”
Milless is sure that the Long Beach win will prove to be a psychological breakthrough for Kirkwood, in that it will alleviate the pressure to prove himself.
“When we went to Thermal Club [for the preseason open test]– a track that none of the drivers had been to – immediately he was super-fast,” he says. “But when we went to Sebring, he still wanted to run a lot of laps. Then at St. Pete he told me he wanted to use his first set of tires to run a lot of laps again. I told him, ‘I don’t think you need to: you’re fast already.’ Sure enough, Lap 3 – Bing! – there he was, super-quick. I was like, ‘See, I told you…’
“So to your point, yes, we had more confidence in him than he had in himself. Now he’s got that first pole and that first win, I suspect it’s such a relief for him, a boost in his self-belief.
“It took him a bit to get up to speed at Texas with our generic setup. We probably need to work with him a bit to get the best out of him on the higher-banked ovals. But honestly, we – Andretti Autosport as a team – really need to work on higher-banked ovals because it’s our weakness, too.”
Does Kirkwood becoming a winner so early in his tenure at Andretti add pressure on Grosjean, who scored just one podium for the team last year, after scoring three with Dale Coyne Racing? Does it add pressure on Herta who is sensationally quick but had a couple too many errors last year for one of his experience? Will they redouble their efforts to establish superiority over the new guy?
“I don’t know,” says Milless. “I don’t think it should affect Colton at all. Being Colton works for Colton! And Romain? I can’t see anything he needs to do. That guy is on fire right now – super-fast at St. Pete, really strong at Texas, really strong at Long Beach… I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets that first win.”
And only time will tell if Kirkwood will usurp the status of his teammates. But just the fact that it can be considered a possibility says much about his ultimate potential.