Kyle Kirkwood obliterated several records on his way to three successive Road to Indy titles. He’s poised for IndyCar in 2022, be it full or part-time, and Craig Woollard caught up with him just after his Indy Lights title
“Yeah, it sounds pretty good”, says Kyle Kirkwood, somewhat modestly, about being Indy Lights champion as our 30-minute podcast begins. There was so much to cover, from his Lights title success to what his 2022 plans are and so much more.
Right from the off, it became clear that the Andretti Autosport starlet is ready for his next step up. There’s a lot to the game in IndyCar beyond the driving, and Kirkwood’s personality, charisma and openness about these topics will make him the perfect fit in America’s top open-wheel category even before looking at his exquisite ability behind the wheel.
By no stretch is he the youngest champion in Road to Indy history, turning 23 years old today [October 19th], but he has been a hard grafter who has picked up scholarships based on his ability and results and used that to haul himself up the ladder with good effect.
“[I’m] doing pretty good,” he says, very relaxed, after his title success. “I was on the road for over a month there between Portland and Laguna Seca, Long Beach and then Mid-Ohio and then I was back to Indianapolis, so it’s nice to get back home to Florida and have a little relaxing time and I guess let the championship win settle in.”
Kirkwood had to wait a year longer than anticipated before he was able to complete his treble, with Lights’ 2020 season being postponed and later cancelled as the season was just getting underway at St. Petersburg.
Instead of following some of his peers back to lower-level single-seater championships, Kirkwood landed drives in sportscars, dipping his toes into both prototype and GT3 machinery – something he feels will add to his game as he progresses into IndyCar.
“Well, I think it was pretty huge for me” he reflects, as he looks ahead to racing at Petit Le Mans in November. “[I was] doing the LMP3 and the GTD stuff with Lexus Vasser-Sullivan, so I mean it was massive.
“Because if we did Indy Lights, I wouldn’t have had either one of those opportunities and the amount I have learned so far driving the Lexus, the RCF GT3 car, with fuel-saving, tyre saving, pitstops, strategies – all the stuff that’s going to be useful in IndyCar that I wouldn’t have learned in Indy Lights, so it was actually pretty massive for me.
“It was a strange year, right? It was strange for everyone. We had a hiatus, it was pretty depressing to be honest because going into it like I was like ‘man, I’ve never taken a year off racing ever in my career’ and at the time it was like we’re not going racing, we’re not gonna race this year, and we don’t know how long it’s going for.
“But fortunately, I got those opportunities, and it was pretty massive the amount that I learned in it and I’m going to be able to utilise it throughout the rest of my career, I think.”
While many of those skills picked up wouldn’t have been required in Lights this year, it’s great stuff to bank for the future. It will also make Kirkwood an exciting prospect for some of the top IMSA teams, primarily for the endurance races which tend not to clash with IndyCar due as they’re the historic events drivers all want such as the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours.
This dalliance with sportscars has really given Kirkwood a newfound appreciation for that kind of racing, to the point where he’s eyeing up the biggest prize in endurance racing of them all…
“Well, I’d definitely want to do Le Mans. That has always been a bucket list for me. I really enjoy endurance racing now, I didn’t realise how enjoyable it was until I did a race with Lexus and Vasser-Sullivan.
“Because it’s multiple drivers and in the predicament I’m in in the #14 car, both drivers come from the same exact background as me and also the engineers come from IndyCar, so there’s a lot of similarities. And we all like the car the same, so we’re just happy. [Ex-IndyCar driver and RTI star] Jack Hawksworth really is the one who sets the car up for us and then when I drive it, I’m super happy with it and so it’s not very stressful at all, you just get out there and drive.
“You don’t even have to drive that hard because you don’t have to save so much fuel and tyres, and it’s all strategy-based as well. It’s not very demanding racing so it’s a good time to just have some fun in racing. I’ve really enjoyed it. I hope to keep doing it, you’ll see me at Petit here in about a month and hopefully next year I’ll be doing all the same events I did this year.”
After the hiatus, it took Kirkwood a little bit of time before he found his stride in Lights. One win from the first six races is the same return as his [again, successful] Indy Pro 2000 season but he won nine times in the remaining 14 races to come out on top in a fierce battle with HMD Motorsports and partner Global Racing Group, spearheaded by David Malukas and Linus Lundqvist respectively.
“I’m not really sure what it is, but once we get momentum behind us, we’re pretty unstoppable, to an extent,” Kirkwood says of what was behind such a strong run of success. “Once I get a few wins under me, I get a lot more confidence, and then when that happens, I just feel like we’re super-strong, right?
“And it’s happened in a few of the seasons, pretty much all of my Road to Indy seasons, including Formula 4 and Formula 3 [Formula Regional Americas] over here in the US. So, I can’t really explain why, I wish I could just start off and have good races but every single year we start off slow. Pace-wise not slow but just our performance isn’t great, and once I get a little bit of confidence and get a win and maybe a couple of wins and there’s a lot of confidence involved, and I think that’s what makes the difference.”
That’s not necessarily the way Kirkwood’s time in IndyCar will pan out. With the cars staying the same pretty much from year to year, although the introduction of hybrid powertrains is on the way, once he has that experience in the top level behind him there’s every chance he can hit the ground running and assert himself as a frontrunner right away. Building up that confidence and getting in the right place at the end of a race or season is often what forms the basis of not only wins in races like the Indianapolis 500, but title victories as well.
There are elements of some of the recent greats in Kirkwood’s game. Quick over one lap, blindingly fast in races, able to pull off devastating overtakes and when he has that momentum going, he can be simply unstoppable. Laguna Seca this year was a perfect example. At a track where he has not gone particularly well at in the past by his lofty standards, Kirkwood dominated the dry race by a whopping 26 seconds over title rival Malukas. But that’s not the win he’s most fond of across his 31 in the Road to Indy…
“If I was to pinpoint one, I would say Gateway in Indy Pro 2000 where I started last after we were disqualified from qualifying, because we made a wing change on the grid, and it got lost in translation. My entire team [RP Motorsport USA] was Italian and they thought we could change the rear wing, but you can only change the front wing and they changed the rear wing while we were sitting in there ready to go out for qualifying, so we were disqualified before we even went out on track.
“And we came all away from the back, I think seven laps in I was already back in the lead, and we led the rest of the race. So that was an incredible race and that one felt the best of all of them, so if I was to look back at one race in the past few seasons, I’d definitely pinpoint that one.”
October 16th marked a decade since the passing of Dan Wheldon in a horrendous 15-car IndyCar crash at Las Vegas, but beyond the current chassis that bears his initials, his legacy lives on in other ways. Kirkwood continues to look up to the Briton, who claimed two famous Indy 500 wins as well as the IndyCar title.
“Honestly, Dan Wheldon was the guy who I seriously looked up to when I was younger in karting. He was around the karting events with us, and he was a super guy. He would talk to anyone, obviously an amazing driver but even more important just a super guy.
“So I try to emulate him as much as possible, and I know he meant a lot to me, talking to me as a young kid, and I hope to be able to make the same impression on younger drivers if I’m as successful as he was.”
Leading from the front or doing whatever was required to get there to win races and title with an incredible amount of flair was exactly Wheldon’s style, and we’ve seen a lot of that in Kirkwood to date. Once he gets up to speed, expect even more of it.
Despite the quality IndyCar drivers it has produced, the Road to Indy hasn’t always been looked overly fondly upon, particularly by those within Europe. Lights in particular arbitrarily often fails to qualify for its full superlicence points allocation due to its small grid size. But Kirkwood feels that the talent there goes somewhat underappreciated.
“I think for a lot of people from Europe if you look into the American series, it’s not very big groups of cars. It’s usually only a couple of [top] drivers, so I understand why it’s usually not as a high on the totem pole as Formula 2 or F3 but there is really good talent over here.
“And I think you can take me, David, some of the other drivers here and put them in a good car in Europe and [they’ll] do quite well. It’s probably deserving between us all. But the groups of cars aren’t that big, so it doesn’t look like it’s as competitive as it is over in Europe, right?”
As he leaves the Road to Indy, a ladder that has given him so much (beyond just very handy scholarships and over $1 million in prize money), Kirkwood reflects very fondly of his highly successful period there.
“Man, all of [the memories]. It’s pretty incredible what we’ve done over the past few years, all with different teams, great groups of people that I’ve worked with between Cape Motorsports – even I ran with Cape in F4 in 2017, we won the championship with them.
“Won in USF2000, then RP Motorsport, a completely different team but we had awesome groups of guys, even my engineer works for Trident as an engineer now in F2 and he was Prema prior to coming over here so he was a super good guy. Very intelligent and we never disagreed about anything, and I think it was the same all through every year, it’s all just clicked really well.
“There’s a lot of good memories and you spend a lot of time at the track with these people so it kind of becomes family, to an extent. All of it’s been amazing all the way through the years. It’s a bit sad me leaving, I guess my junior categories are in the past now and looking to become now a professional driver, I could say. But no, we’ve had amazing years over the past four to five years.”