Last year’s shock rookie flop shows he can cut it at the top with breakthrough win


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Kyle Kirkwood never lost confidence in his ability to win races, even through the doldrums of a rookie season in the IndyCar series which saw the most coveted American open-wheel racing prospect of a generation already labelled as a ‘bust’.

“I think all the real ones know that I was able to do it,” Kirkwood said after capturing his first IndyCar win in the Grand Prix of Long Beach. “My team definitely believed in me, that’s the most important thing. Hopefully this is just the first of many.”

Kirkwood won from pole position – a task that’s historically been less frequent than one would expect at a street circuit where on-track overtaking often comes at a premium – and led 53 out of 85 laps to win Sunday’s race.

This was the kind of performance that had become all-too familiar for those who followed his progress in the Road to Indy developmental ladder. But one thing that Kirkwood wasn’t familiar with was taking in the magnitude of being a winner in American open-wheel racing’s premier category.

Kirkwood stayed cool to regain lead from Newgarden
“The feeling I got at the end, I was trying to hold tears back in the car which is something I’ve never really felt before all through the ladder system,” said the 24-year-old. “It almost feels like through my entire open-wheel ladder series career, I always wanted more.

“I’d win a bunch of races and I’d be like, ‘Okay, 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.”

From 2018 to 2021 Kirkwood competed in all three steps along the Road to Indy ladder in the series now known as USF2000, USF Pro 2000, and Indy Nxt. He clinched all three championships in successive seasons with a jaw-dropping 31 wins in 50 starts. And many believe he’d have won the title in the series then known as Indy Lights a year sooner, if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t forced the championship into a one-year hiatus.

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If you add in Kirkwood’s results in the FIA Formula 4 United States and Formula Regional Americas Championships, that adds two more championship titles to Kirkwood’s junior formula racing record and pushes his record to an astonishing 55 wins in 87 races since 2017.

Only Covid delayed Kirkwood’s rise through junior categories
In that time, Kirkwood grew accustomed to dominating races from the front and leaving his pursuers far in the distance. “Not to sound cocky or anything, but I was very used to that in the Road to Indy,” Kirkwood reflected. “Leading races, controlling the pace, understanding what I needed to do to save tyres, the car in general, making sure I could hit all my marks lap after lap after lap, and be consistent.”

“When you’re in the middle, you’re pushing non-stop. Trying to keep people from passing you, dive-bombing you. You’re trying to cycle forward and get passes done.”

“I tell you what, it’s a lot easier when you’re out front than when you’re 18th, I can tell you that much.”

Last year Kirkwood broke into IndyCar as expected, but not with the Andretti Autosport team that had backed him since his step-up to Indy Lights – as they’d surprisingly taken on the less-heralded Devlin DeFrancesco to fill one of their vacant seats for commercial reasons.

Instead, Kirkwood had to learn the ropes in IndyCar with established backmarkers AJ Foyt Racing. He showed flashes of pace beyond what the average driver could muster with Foyt’s equipment and set-ups. But by the time Andretti Autosport corrected its oversight and signed Kirkwood to drive for them in 2023, he had only had one top-ten finish to show for his efforts.

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After the announcement of Kirkwood’s pending transfer, he never finished better than 13th. Kirkwood mixed anonymous finishes with crashes which looked like the product of a driver who was pushing too hard to extract any kind of results. That’s not a good look for any rookie driver. Had he not been so highly regarded in his junior career, and lacked the security of his golden parachute to Andretti in the following season, it would have been hard to justify any team signing such a driver on merit alone.

Debut IndyCar season with Foyt was littered with incidents
His first two races at Andretti this year looked like an unfortunate continuation of the trend. Kirkwood crashed in qualifying at St. Petersburg and got tangled up in two multi-car pile-ups during the race, one of which saw him launch over the back of Rinus VeeKay and up into the air.

His race at Texas ended with a mechanical failure but is best remembered for a pit-lane incident with Alexander Rossi. Kirkwood received waves of hate mail, and then an apology from host broadcaster NBC Sports, after ex-racer turned commentator James Hinchcliffe blamed Kirkwood for the collision instead of Rossi, who was penalised.

“It is nice to get that first win, and quiet some people up that maybe talked bad about me last year,” Kirkwood said in response to his detractors.

Kirkwood’s second-year turnaround aboard the number 27 Andretti Autosport entry invites parallels to one of its former drivers: Four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Dario Franchitti.

Franchitti arrived in the CART World Series as a highly-touted protegé of Jackie Stewart with experience in the DTM touring car ranks. But his 1997 season was littered with unforced mistakes from start to finish – including a turn one collision at Toronto after starting on pole, and crashing under the Safety Car at Road America. He was fired by car owner Carl Hogan before the final race and finished third in the Rookie of the Year standings behind perpetual backmarker Gualter Salles.

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But by then he already had a contract to drive the number 27 car, which was then owned by Barry Green – who saw potential where others saw an accident-prone driver that was in way over his head. Franchitti soon put his wretched rookie campaign behind him to become a race winner in 1998 and a title contender the year after.

Kirkwood won on his third start as an Andretti driver
Similarly, Josef Newgarden – the most successful American IndyCar driver of the current generation – arrived in IndyCar with plenty of promise after an Indy Lights title and GP3 experience. But just like Kirkwood, he had a difficult first year in IndyCar and finished second-to-last out of all full-time drivers with just one top-ten finish.

Newgarden would improve gradually over the following two seasons before he won his first race in 2015, and his transfer to Team Penske in 2017 gave him the platform to regularly contend for series championships – similar to what Kirkwood’s move to Andretti has provided.

To that end, Kirkwood’s victory has also breathed in a fresh air of legitimacy to IndyCar’s home-grown developmental series. The relative top-flight failures of past prospects like Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, and Sage Karam have given Road to Indy an unfair assessment as a failed programme. It’s a perception that isn’t helped by the immediate success that rookie drivers from other big-league racing series and the European junior formula ladder have enjoyed in contrast, as well as some Road to Indy drivers’ well-documented issues to find the funds to advance or keep racing at all.

It’s just one win in his 20th career race, but Kyle Kirkwood can already throw the ‘bust’ label in the bin. This Sunday, he looked like the once-in-a-generation talent that should have had this opportunity much, much sooner.

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Author information

RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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2 comments on “Last year’s shock rookie flop shows he can cut it at the top with breakthrough win”

  1. To be fair, last year Kirkwood drove for the weakest team in IndyCar so the expectations should’ve been adjusted accordingly. IMO he showed more potential than DeFrancesco who took his seat at Andretti, and he did beat his more experienced teammate. He’ll be OK.

  2. He’s been a champion in pretty much every feeder series he’s raced. I expect he’ll do the same with Andretti.

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