Kirkwood Continues Rapid Ascent of Road to Indy ladder
 January 31, 2020| 
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Kyle Kirkwood began grabbing motorsports headlines in earnest in 2018, taking the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship title in decisive fashion and tying J.R. Hildebrand’s record for the most victories with 12. He followed that triumph by capturing the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires crown, which earned him a scholarship into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2020 – just one short step from following best friend Oliver Askew to his ultimate goal: the NTT IndyCar Series.

Along the way, between his Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires events, IMSA Prototype Challenge and the titles he earned in the 2017 F4 US Championship Powered by Honda and the 2018 F3 Americas Championship Powered by Honda, the 21-year-old Floridian has amassed some impressive statistics: 47 victories in 71 races, for a winning percentage of 66%.

RTI_Laguna_092019_test_5454-LGrowing up near each other in Jupiter, Fla., Kirkwood has known Askew since childhood – long before the pair could have imagined winning Road to Indy championships on the same day.  Earning numerous karting titles, racing with Ocala Grand Prix and competing in England as part of Team USA Scholarship, their paths have aligned throughout their careers. Askew won the 2018 USF2000 title with Cape Motorsports, Kirkwood the following season. Kirkwood did Askew one better by taking the Indy Pro 2000 championship last season and will echo Askew’s footsteps by joining 2018/2019 Indy Lights champions Andretti Autosport.

Kirkwood now holds the possibility of becoming the first driver to capture three consecutive Road to Indy championship titles – and the scholarships that enable graduation to the next rung on the development series ladder. But the story of how Kirkwood overcame adversity last season to come out on top – by a slim five-point margin over Juncos Racing’s Rasmus Lindh – provides some insight into what continues to push the young driver forward.

Over the offseason following his USF2000 championship title, Kirkwood took some time to decide which team he wanted to run with in 2019. He settled on Italian-based RP Motorsport USA, rookies in American motorsport in 2018, mere weeks before the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. But once they hit the track, it took little time for Kirkwood to know that he had made the best choice in finding a team that fit him both on and off the racetrack.

RTI_Laguna_092019_i__2263“I had seen how well the team had done in 2018 (with driver Harrison Scott taking six podium finishes including victories at Barber and WorldWide Technology Raceway at Gateway) and I knew they’d be good,” said Kirkwood. “It was super late, but it came together quickly. I got on well with everyone, but most especially with my engineer, Stefano – we never disagreed on anything. They’re super outgoing and super passionate about everything they do. We ate at the track together every single day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I love Italian food, so I wasn’t complaining! We all sat together, enjoying each other’s company. It was a great fit.”

But the season did not begin as planned for Kirkwood, who finished outside the top 10 in two of the first five races. The team began to find pace at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, setting a new track record in Race One in a dash from last to third, but left the month of May lying fifth in the championship race with a 45-point deficit to Lindh.

RTI_PDX_082019_M_8956“Starting out in St. Pete with a DNF (after contact on Lap 1) was not ideal, but we turned it around quickly. We didn’t have the pace at St. Pete, but we began to find it at the Indy GP. And while we didn’t have the result we wanted at LOR, I knew they had pace on the road courses and at Gateway, so I was still confident.”

The team hit their stride mid-season, taking a sweep at Road America, a split at Toronto, and another sweep at Mid-Ohio. Kirkwood knows that momentum is a tricky thing, and once you have it, you often find that things just go your way.

“Nothing really changed after Road America, things just started clicking. Honestly, I don’t think we had the outright pace to win Race Two at Road America, but I had an oil pressure light come on and I figured that if I was going to fall out of the race, I was going to be in the lead – so that’s why I pushed so hard and went for the pass on Rasmus. I look back on those five points and realize that if that hadn’t happened, I would not have won the championship.”

RTI_PDX_082019_M_8938-LJust when RP Motorsports and Kirkwood looked poised to continue their winning streak, a miscue nearly cost them everything. Mistakenly adjusting the wing while on pit lane ahead of qualifying at Gateway, the team found themselves at the back of the field instead of starting the race from pole position. Kirkwood’s drive from the back to the front in five laps was a season highlight – despite the anxiety it caused the entire team.

“It was a tough pill to swallow, but I was still pretty confident about finishing on the podium. Everyone kind of got bottled up in the first few laps and I was able to capitalize. I made the high line work when no one else was able to and it worked, which is unusual for that track. At that point, we had so much momentum, and I finally was able to say yea, I think we can do this.”

RP Motorsport had skipped the Portland finale in 2018, so arriving at the picturesque road course with no data was cause for concern for the team, but not for Kirkwood, armed with the knowledge gained in a USF2000 sweep the year before. He continued that streak in 2019, sweeping both race wins and taking the championship lead – a lead he would not relinquish despite Lap 1 contact in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca that left him with a 14th place finish. Winning the scholarship into Indy Lights in 2020 gives Kirkwood the chance to follow Askew’s path with Andretti Autosport, a path he hopes continues to the championship and beyond.

“Scholarships have catapulted me forward throughout my career, and none more so than this one. I’ve gotten calls from people I never would have thought I’d hear from a few years ago and it’s opened a lot of doors. The Road to Indy has done more for me than anything else in my career and that’s saying a lot. I’ve won scholarships in karting, Skip Barber and the Team USA Scholarship, which really got the ball rolling three years ago, as well as F4 and F3. But the USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 scholarships, the chance to race in Indy Lights, it means the world to me. I’m going to keep pushing, to get the most out of it as I can. 

Kirkwood knows that working with Doug Zister, the engineer who guided Colton Herta in 2018 and Askew in 2019, and the entire Andretti team means he’ll have to up his game across all facets of racing as he inches closer accomplishing this feat – and reaching his ultimate goal.

IMG_3075-L“Andretti is a great place to be if you want to win the championship, and with their reputation across all the categories they race in, I’m extremely grateful to be with them this year. I know I will learn so much in addition to how to drive the car that I will be able to use for the rest of my career, like media and public relations. They do such a great job in that regard.

“My goal is to do as well as Oliver did last year, to win the scholarship and move up to IndyCar. But I know that everything happens for a reason and it will work out, one way or another. I won’t put too much pressure on myself.”

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