Is Kyle Kirkwood Indy’s Next Star?
Written by Morgan Holiday, edited by Harshi Vashee
Not enough people in the motorsport world are talking about Kyle Kirkwood’s junior career.
Statistically speaking, the American driver has one of, if not the most impressive single seater junior career of all time. A 62% win rate in the entire Road to Indy (consisting of three different series), and four rookie titles in four years? That kind of record is all but unheard of, not just amongst the Indycar feeder series but amongst the entirety of motorsport. And yet one of the biggest young talents in motorsport is widely unrecognized outside the American circle of Indy racing, and even in Indycar very nearly didn’t manage to get a seat for 2022.
The question of whether Kirkwood is good enough to be Indy’s next star isn’t truly up for debate, although what he’ll accomplish in his rookie year in Indycar is an interesting question. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t sure whether or not he has the talent to be a top player in the series, let’s take a look at how Kirkwood got to where he is now.
After some success in karting, Kirkwood made his single seater debut in 2015, at age 17, racing in F1600 with Chastain Motorsports. He won his very first race in the category, but went on to finish 16th in the standings overall. In 2016 and 2017 Kirkwood raced in the F4 United States Championship, finishing third in points in his first year and beginning his championship win streak with a victory the following year.
After Kirkwood won F4 United States he began to make his way up the ladder to the Road to Indy, beginning with the U.S. F2000 in 2018. In his rookie season, he won 12 of the 14 races, took five pole positions and six fastest laps, and won the championship by 202 points over Rasmus Lindh. But that wasn’t the only series Kirkwood competed in, or won, that season. In the F3 Americas championship he also won all but two races, taking 15 wins and 15 fastest laps, and again five pole positions.
The next step on the Road to Indy ladder is the Indy Pro 2000 championship, which Kirkwood tackled in 2019 with RP Motorsport. Again Kirkwood’s closest rival was Lindh, but this time the margin was much closer. Despite only winning by two points, Kirkwood still took nine wins in 16 races, as well as five poles and seven fastest laps, only finishing outside the points one time. That season Kirkwood also participated in two races of the Euroformula Open series, and although he was ineligible for points, finished ninth and sixth respectively.
In 2020, Kirkwood was signed by Andretti Autosport to compete in the Indy Lights series, the final step on the Road to Indy ladder (bar Indycar itself). Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on the series, and Kirkwood and the other drivers competing were forced to wait a year. During 2020, he still managed to get some racing in, competing in two races for the IMSA SportsCar championship, and four races for the IMSA Prototype Challenge. In the latter series he took a win at the season opener in Daytona, and finished 16th overall in the standings.
In 2021, Indy Lights got back underway and Kirkwood, still with Andretti, was ready to continue his championship win streak and conquer the final step of the Road to Indy ladder. And ten wins, seven poles, and nine fastest laps later, he did exactly that, taking the Indy Lights title by 13 points over David Malukas.
Winning Indy Lights made Kirkwood the only driver to win every series on the Road to Indy ladder (again, barring Indycar itself), and doing it all as a rookie makes the feat even more impressive. But the jarringly incredible statistics don’t stop there, as Kirkwood competed in a total of 50 races in the Road to Indy, and of those 50 he won 31 of them. For anyone who can’t do quick math, that’s a 62% win rate, and again, as a rookie in all those series. His podium rate for those fifty races was 80%.
Despite having easily the most impressive resume of any single seater driver in recent (if not all) years, Kirkwood barely managed to secure a seat in Indycar for the 2022 season. While winning Indy Lights guaranteed him a $1 Million scholarship towards an Indycar seat, as well as a seat for three races in the following season, Andretti Autosport opted instead to sign Devlin DeFrancesco as their fourth driver, a Canadian-Italian who finished sixth in the 2021 Indy Lights season. Originally, as Andretti made plans to join Formula 1 and sign Colton Herta to the team, Kirkwood was set to replace him at Indycar, but when the deal with Sauber fell through so did Kirkwood’s chance at Herta’s seat.
For a while Kirkwood’s future was in question, a somewhat ridiculous position for such a decorated driver to be in. But eventually he was announced for a full time Indycar drive by A.J. Foyt Racing, alongside Dalton Kellett. A.J. Foyt Racing has not won a race since 2013, when Takuma Sato won at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The team’s poor performance being taken into account, it’s highly unlikely that Kirkwood will continue his streak of wins and podiums, but just what can the talented junior accomplish in 2022, or even in the following years for that matter?
A lot will be riding on Kirkwood’s rookie season in Indycar. He’ll have a teammate to contend with, as well as a number of other decorated rookies. Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard are coming in from the Formula 1 feeder series, and are likely to be fast, and Kirkwood will also be up against his Indy Lights rivals Malukas and DeFrancesco.
The most recent driver to succeed in Indycar after winning Indy Lights is Pato O’Ward (2018 Indy Lights champion), the first since Josef Newgaarden (2011 champion). Newgaarden is the only Indy Lights champion to win Indycar as well, but should Kirkwood impress enough to get a spot at a top team in the next couple of years, he could easily become one of the next drivers on that list. It seems strange that a driver with more wins than any other placement on the whole Road to Indy ladder still finds himself with a need to impress the top teams, but racing can be a complicated business, where often money speaks louder than on track results.
It is abundantly clear that Kirkwood has the talent to win the Indycar championship multiple times over, the only thing he currently lacks is a car to support his talent. His rookie season will be very telling for his future, and with a record unlike any other, all eyes will be watching to see what he can achieve in 2022.
How well do you think Kirkwood can perform in his rookie season at Indycar? Let us know!