Kyle Kirkwood was one of the breakout stars of the 2023 IndyCar season with a pair of victories causing his stock to soar. After an impressive campaign, he looks back on the lessons learned in his burgeoning career.
In his second year competing in North America’s premier open-wheel championship, first with Andretti, the 24-year-old Floridian visited Victory Lane for the first time in his career on the Streets of Long Beach, and then repeated the feat in at Nashville. What’s more, he was the only driver to find the top step of the podium in a team that included Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco.
However, the year proved to be feast or famine as those wins were the only times Kirkwood placed among the top five in the 17 rounds en route to finishing 11th in the championship standings. The wins provided some solace in a year plagued by a combination of mistakes or being involved in random incidents.
Reflecting back on the year, the 24-year-old doesn’t believe there was much of an adjustment in moving to Andretti from AJ Foyt Racing, where he spent his rookie season in 2022, but rather continuing to get acclimated to the nuances of IndyCar.
“Where the learning came from is just myself within the series, still understanding IndyCar,” Kirkwood told Motorsport.com. “You know, it’s weird because you come up through the ladder series and you get into IndyCar, and you have the pace. That’s not a question. It wasn’t a question for me. I didn’t think.
“There’s still so much to learn within the series and how things operate and understanding the tires, conditions, evolution, degradation, strategy, stuff like that, and I’m just now starting to understand it. I’m getting to the point where I understand the race that we’re racing, whereas at the beginning of the year or last year, I didn’t understand it. I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m driving until they tell me to pit.’
PHOTO BY: GAVIN BAKER / MOTORSPORT IMAGES
Kirkwood conceded he began the season without a full understanding of what’s required to be successful in IndyCar
“Now, I understand what needs to be done in the situation that we’re in and that has helped me just by understanding and knowing when to push, when not to push, when to save, when not to save.
“Nashville was a perfect example where we just sat in second place for a while because I knew that we didn’t really need to get around Alex Palou because he was going to have to pit earlier than us. I understood the strategy differences from the beginning of the race when an early caution came out. And that’s all stuff that I didn’t have the knowledge of last year, which has helped me. That’s what I’ve really learned throughout the season. Not really pace. It’s not really anything with my driving. It’s just understanding and what to do in what situations.”
Part of Kirkwood’s growth has come with a relentless discipline of studying. Every race weekend he arrived at the track at the same time as his team, when the gates to the garage open up, and is among the last to leave. Instead of going out, though, he can be found back at the hotel, usually ordering dinner and being firmly planted in data, onboard videos or watching old races. While he admitted that might seem excessive to some, it puts him at ease to not leave anything on the table.
“To be honest, I think Andretti as a whole, has as much if not more resources than Penske or Ganassi and they put probably a bigger effort in than either one of those teams” Kyle Kirkwood
Andretti have long been considered part of the ‘Big Three’ teams along Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. However, the wins and titles haven’t come as frequent as the two rival squads. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the last Andretti driver to capture the IndyCar championship, doing so in 2012. Since then, Ganassi have amassed six titles while Penske claimed five.
Ganassi continued the theme in 2023 as Palou stormed to his second title over the past three seasons. However, there were hints of a resurgence out of Andretti that also came with growing pains.
“I think earlier in the season it was tire degradation, but I feel like by the end of the year we had a great handle on our tire degradation, which seemed to be a weakness of Andretti the past few years before I was even with the team,” Kirkwood said.
PHOTO BY: PHILLIP ABBOTT / MOTORSPORT IMAGES
Kirkwood scored his maiden success at Long Beach as he was battling to get to grips with tire degradation
“It’s ever-changing is the frustrating thing. It’s not just one thing when we show up to one of these events. The one thing that we thought that we might have had a weakness in, which was tire degradation, we got a handle on and then we show up again and it’s like, ‘Okay, now it’s a different issue’ and then it’s a different issue from there. It’s tough to put a finger on.
“To be honest I think Andretti, as a whole, has as much if not more resources than Penske or Ganassi and they put probably a bigger effort in than either one of those teams with personnel, how much they do and how much the engineers care about the programme. That’s something that I’ve never seen before when I joined the team this year; how much effort that they put in and how much they care about it. So, it’s not from a lack of effort, if I have to say, and I’m sure because of that we will have a handle on it.
“We’re not far away. We made progress on our oval package.”
The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on 28 May showcased some improvement as both Kirkwood and team-mate Colton Herta were in the mix for victory. It ended in tears for both, though, with Herta suffering pitstop woes on lap 133 of 200, while Kirkwood’s #27 Honda went upside down in a violent crash after contact with Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist on lap 183.
“Me and Colton had a shot at winning the Indy 500, I thought, if we didn’t have our issues,” Kirkwood said. “I feel like we were probably the second-best team at Iowa, which was a very big weakness for the team in the past. We should have been racing against or beating Ganassi there. I mean, really the Penskes were the only ones that were up the road on us there then.
“We’re getting closer. We’re constantly evolving and we’re figuring it out. It’s just we’re still taking small steps at it.”
PHOTO BY: GAVIN BAKER / MOTORSPORT IMAGES
11th in the 2023 standings, can Kirkwood crack the top 10 in 2024?