There is a unique blend of calmness and confidence to Kyle Kirkwood.
Always has been.
Perhaps that’s because his focus has always led to unquestionable results, which includes becoming the only driver to ever win championships at all three levels of the Road to Indy, the development ladder system for the NTT IndyCar Series.
Now, the 23-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, is preparing for the next step of that journey as a rookie on the IndyCar grid for 2022, beginning with his home race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Feb. 27.
There is some optimism for Kirkwood, too, as he and the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet showed progress throughout the offseason, which really showed during the final preseason test at Sebring International Raceway earlier at the beginning of the week.
“We’re extremely happy with the way the test went,” Kirkwood told TobyChristie.com “That’s our third day at Sebring, though. We left our first day with a good car and I feel like we’ve been kind of just tuning around that. We did a lot of damper development over the offseason, I guess really the team did, and we found some huge gains with that. Obviously, we’ve got to go to race tracks to be able to find that out, but we’ve only been able to test that Sebring and it equated to some time… we’re happy with what we got right now and we just tuned around that for the entire two test days. Our pace really didn’t show on the first day, we were compromised on all of our new tire runs except for one.
“That was a little bit unfortunate because we wanted to put Foyt close to the top on the first day. I think, realistically, we would’ve been within a tenth (of a second), and (Tuesday) was the same thing. We probably should have been on top, but our last entire run when everyone went quickest and in the track was good and everyone was running their quick times at the end of the day, we weren’t able to get our new tire run in just because of traffic and really my mistakes. But we were there. We’re extremely happy with car. We’re going to start St. Pete like that, and it should be pretty good. A lot of the stuff we were doing the past couple days were just kind of due diligence stuff to make sure that I’m ready for the race weekend.
“We did a lot of pit stop stuff, long runs, making sure like the cool suit works, that I’m used to the drink bottle, getting me used to changing bars and (engine) maps on the wheel for the power maps, yellow maps and whatnot. That’s really what a lot of it was. We weren’t going for ultimate pace when some of the other guys were, and I think there were other guys using overtake and stuff like that to get lap times, which I’m not a fan of. I think that’s not a good representation (of pace) and kind of it sets your expectations a little bit high if you do that. So, we’re extremely happy with the test though. The car’s been good. We got it in the window and the team is gelling together really well. It’s kind of last minute getting everyone together, a lot of new people on the team but it was a good test and not many mistakes came up. So, we’re happy with everything.”
Throughout the RTI, the races are short enough to not require pit stops, which can become a steep learning curve for drivers when they advance into IndyCar. However, Kirkwood’s experience also competing in IMSA, specifically, the endurance rounds with Vasser Sullivan, likely lessen that being a potential issue. If there is one point of emphasis, it will be getting up to speed – and quickly – with the Firestone alternate (red sidewall) tires that are used alongside the primary (black sidewall) at road and street course events.
“Strategy wise, it’s been different compared to the IMSA stuff because out and in laps are so important in IndyCar just to try and get position,” he said. “They’re not as important in IMSA. That was some of the stuff that I was working on myself is making sure I get tires up quickly and I understand what the ride height is doing versus what the tire is allowing. There are a lot of differences. The pit stops are pretty much the same. It’s nice having all the experience that I’ve had in IMSA. Obviously, pit stops are a lot slower and the clutch is a hand clutch in IndyCar, so I had to get used to that. I mean, everything kind of came naturally. The red tire is going to be the toughest thing for me, but as a rookie IndyCar, does a good job and they give us a set of reds to use in practice to get kind of a grip on things. But they’re peaky tires, you get two laps to try and figure it out. Hopefully, in those two laps, I get some clean air and be able to figure it out at St. Pete.”
In A.J. Foyt Racing, Kirkwood joins a team that hasn’t been to Victory Lane since 2013 (Takuma Sato, Long Beach). However, there have been occasional bright spots, with the likes of four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais flashing pace when behind the wheel of the No. 14 entry last season, including two fifth-place results (Barber Motorsports Park, World Wide Technology Raceway).
Combine those results with positive damper improvements to the program, and there is reason to believe Kirkwood and Co. might be able to push up further up the grid.
“Our goal is to progress from where we’re at right now,” he said. “I mean, like I said earlier, we’re happy with what we have at the moment. If we can keep building, there’s so much room for improvement with the team, and with new personnel on board, a lot more development, our trajectory is straight up, it seems. I think as the year goes on, we’re just going to keep figuring out and keep getting better while there’s a lot of teams that are kind of stagnant. Our pace showing (Tuesday) and day before, us being pretty much right there with the top teams that are winning races at street courses shows we have potential. You know, in IndyCar right now, one or two tenths (of a second) will put you from 20th to inside the top 10 in qualifying sometimes.
“That’s really all it takes and we feel like we’ve already kind of found that and there’s room to go. So, I truly think it’s going to be a pretty good season for us, but we’re going to have to take it weekend by weekend. There’s going to be some weekends that we’re going to feel like we’re on fire and probably some weekends that we’re not, but that’s just how racing goes. Of course, it changes per weekend, so our expectations need to be set on what we think we can do per weekend.”