He has dominated the American feeder series in recent years, collecting championships like baseball cards and breaking record after record. After winning the USF and Pro 2000 crowns as a rookie, can Kyle Kirkwood make it a three in a row in Indy Lights this year? In an exclusive for F1 Feeder Series, editor-at-large Jeroen Demmendaal spoke to the young man from Florida.
This year’s Indy Lights field is not only bigger than last year’s, it arguably also contains more credible title contenders than 2019 — which was largely a two-horse race between newly coined NTT IndyCar Series drivers Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay.
One of those likely contenders is without doubt young American Kyle Kirkwood, the reigning Indy Pro 2000 champion, who has taken his scholarship funds to Andretti Autosport. That in itself makes him a prime title contender, since Andretti has been the dominating force in Lights in recent years, taking both Askew and Patricio O’Ward to the title.
But Kirkwood has plenty to bring to the table himself as well. In fact, the young Floridian has been a force of nature ever since he first stepped into an open-wheel car back in 2015. Go figure: in the last three years he has racked up an astonishing 45 wins and 55 podium finishes in 69 starts. That helped him to four titles in three years: F4 United States champion in 2017, winner of both F3 Americas and USF2000 championships in 2018 and an Indy Pro 2000 title in 2019.
Given those numbers, you wonder whether he ever adheres to Ferris Bueller’s famous motto: Life moves pretty fast — if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Does he ever stop to consider his amazing batting average? “Not necessarily,” he tells me over the phone from Florida. “In the end, my focus is to make it to IndyCar, Formula 1 or whatever it may be. And I am still not there yet. So I am just working as hard as I can, and there is no time to relax and reflect on my achievements.”
His track record also illustrates that one of his main strengths is his ability to get up to speed in a new car quickly. “There is always a bit of a learning curve, but I tend to just go into any car with an open mind. I talk to the engineers, who tell me what the car is like and what I can expect, and then I go out on track to feel out the characteristics. I am very fortunate that way; because of my natural talent I don’t find it hard to get into a new car,” Kirkwood explains.
In fact, learning new tracks is the biggest challenge in his view. “Knowing which way you’re going is definitely the most important thing,” he says. “That is the hardest part about any series because we have so little track time prior to a race. If you don’t know the track and it takes you half a session to figure things out, you are already half a session behind.”
While Kirkwood completely dominated USF2000 in 2018 (12 wins in 14 races), his start to the 2019 Pro 2000 Series was considerably tougher. He secured a podium finish at St Petersburg and Indianapolis, but combined that with getting tangled up in incidents in the other races during those weekends. Meanwhile, his main competitors Rasmus Lindh and Parker Thompson were racking up wins and running away in the title race.
“It was a very late start for RP Motorsport and myself,” he explains. “I signed the contract only two weeks before St Pete and we only had one real test before we got there. So there was getting used to a new team, plus there was the language barrier because they all spoke Italian.” But as the season progressed, Kirkwood and RP Motorsport slowly but surely found their swing.
“As soon as we got a couple of wins under our belt, the confidence was there. We swept the weekend at Road America, gained momentum and knew what the car was doing. Plus we had some luck on our side at the end of the season,” he says. Nevertheless, this was a title Kirkwood really had to work for, as Lindh combined his strong start with an amazing consistency and finished outside of the top-4 only once in sixteen races.
“It was really close with Rasmus,” says Kirkwood, reflecting on the battle with the Swede. “He was so consistent throughout the season, and he was on the podium almost every single race. Even after winning seven races in a row, I almost didn’t catch up with him. That is also my goal for this year, to be more consistent with my finishes.”
Kirkwood agrees with the assessment that he should be expected to fight for the Lights title this year, but is careful to embrace a role as favourite. “I think it will be a bit tougher for Andretti than in previous years,” he observes. “The competition this year is going to be stronger. HMD has picked up a few good engineers from Belardi and Juncos, and I think they will be very strong with Santi Urrutia and David Malukas.”
As for his teammates, Kirkwood speaks highly of both Robert Megennis and Danial Frost. “Rob now has a year under his belt, he has had an entire year to learn and will be able to apply to those lessons this season. As for Danial, he has been very good in pre-season testing. I also think this car caters to him a bit better than the Pro 2000 so he will be strong too.”
He looks forward to switching to Lights, not in the least because he will exchange his Tatuus car for a Dallara chassis. “Yeah, it’s nice for a change because for the last two years i have driven pretty much the same car,” he says. “The Indy Pro 2000 car has more power and a different wing set and so on than the USF2000 car, but after ten laps it feels like you’re basically doing the same speed.”
Indy Lights, on the other hand, offers a completely new car with a longer wheelbase and considerably more power, as output increases from 275hp in Pro 2000 to at least 450hp. Kirkwood thinks the biggest adjustment will be the tires, though, with a much harder compound compared to the lower rungs on the Road to Indy. “They are the biggest change factor, definitely. You have to figure out how to bring them up to temperature, how long they will last, and so on.”
F1 interest remains
Assuming his 2020 Indy Lights campaign is a success, the question is: what’s next? Here, too, Kirkwood keeps an open mind. “IndyCar is the goal right now, but of course, if that doesn’t pan out and I get the chance of a Formula E ride, I would pick that in a heartbeat,” he says, referring to his recent rookie test run with the BMW Andretti Formula E team. “It is good racing and good fun, plus all drivers in Formula E are either former F1 guys or extremely good up and coming drivers.”
And then there is Formula 1, which also holds a particular attraction for the American. “F1 has always been on the radar for me, it is the pinnacle of motorsports. Ever since I was in karting and raced in Europe, my goal was always to go to F1, until I realised what the Road to Indy was,” he says. “I would love an opportunity to test an F1 car, or to do some Formula 2 testing.” But if Formula 1 ever becomes an option, it is likely to be so after a stint in the NTT IndyCar Series, he adds. “Really the only way to do it, with my background here, is to first go through IndyCar and then go to F1. I don’t see myself doing Lights first, and then go to F2.”