Earlier this week F1 Feeder Series already spoke exclusively with David Malukas, and now we’ve had a one-to-one with the other championship contender in Indy Lights: Andretti Autosport’s force of nature Kyle Kirkwood. The Floridian spoke about his dominance in Laguna Seca, his confidence going into the season finale at Mid-Ohio and his plans for 2022.
Yes, he did enjoy attending the NTT IndyCar Series season finale at Long Beach. “Next to the Indy 500, this is probably the best event of the year!” But Florida native and surfer boy Kyle Kirkwood was also in the area to make use of California’s beaches and surfing spots. “The waves in California are way better than in Florida,” he assures F1 Feeder Series when we speak with him.
The visit to Long Beach was a fitting end to a very successful West Coast swing for Kirkwood, as he made some firm strides towards the 2021 Indy Lights title. Following two better-than-expected results at Portland, the 22-year-old completely dominated the proceedings at Laguna Seca and took over the championship lead ahead of the season finale at Mid-Ohio.
“I think we knew starting in practice that this would be our weekend, to be honest,” he reflects on the Laguna performance. “I mean, we were so good in practice. I know the guys over at HMD Motorsports thought we were on low fuel or trying to do qualifying sim laps. That just wasn’t the case, we were really good right away. I was a little bit skeptical of our race pace, because at Portland they were three tenths quicker than me in qualifying and then I was quicker in the race. But that wasn’t the case, we were even better in the race.”
Especially his Race 2 performance was a sight to behold. Kirkwood blew the field away, finishing almost half a minute of his rival David Malukas. Asked what his secret was, he just shakes his head. “I honestly don’t know, I couldn’t tell you. I wish I did know, so I could have helped out my teammates to get them up there with me and create a bit of a buffer with Malukas!”
While he was deliberately conservative in Race 1, Kirkwood decided to go flat out in Race 2. “I was like: you know what, I think everyone has got their cautions out of the way, I’m just going to push the entire race and see what kind of gap we can build,” he explains. “Hopefully make them feel bad, you know. When you have that good of a weekend, it puts a damper on some people and that was sort of the goal. If anything, that was our best weekend of the year.”
Beating Greg Moore’s record
Needless to say, Kirkwood heads to Mid-Ohio full of confidence. “I feel pretty amazing to be honest,” he says, asked about where his head is at right now. “I’ve never felt this confident going into a final round of a series where I’m actually competing for a championship. I mean, in Indy Pro 2000 I was definitely a lot more nervous than I am now going into the final round. Our car is so good at Mid-Ohio, I’ve done so many laps there. I think my teammates will be able to bring it up this weekend.”
A little joker this weekend could be the weather, as the Sunday promises to be a wet one. Kirkwood is relishing the challenge: “I’ve never raced in the wet on the Road to Indy! This could possibly be my last ever race in the Road to Indy, and it might be in very wet conditions on a very treacherous track. I’m looking forward to it because it reminds me of karting. You can run a bunch of different lines and you have to understand where the grip is. So if it’s wet, I’m excited. I’m confident with my abilities at Mid-Ohio, I have done a lot of laps around there in the wet.”
Kirkwood hopes he can get the deal done and secure the title already in Race 1. “With that potential for rain on Sunday, I think some people will throw an extra set of tires on in qualifying 1,” he says. “We will probably put all our eggs in one basket for the first race, try and get the maximum points. That way, going into the final round all we have to do basically is start the race.”
Just starting Race 2 won’t satisfy him though, because apart from winning the Lights championship, Kirkwood has another target this weekend: “My goal is to win both races. There is this record I’m trying to break, Greg Moore’s record from back in the day when he won ten races in one season (in the 1995 Indy Lights season, JD). I’m going for eleven!”
Conversations are happening
If there is any justice in this world, Kirkwood and Malukas should of course both be on the IndyCar grid in 2022. Kirkwood doesn’t feel the extra pressure of winning the title and getting the USD 1.2 million scholarship, even though he has had to rely a lot on those scholarships to move forward in his career in recent years.
“Obviously makes it a lot easier if I have a scholarship, but at the same time I don’t think it will end up being a complete dealbreaker for me,” he offers. “It will be nice to have and winning the championship is obviously good for my resume, but I don’t think it’s absolutely crucial. I think I’ve done enough for teams to want to bring me up.”
Where he ends up next year is still very unclear, but at least he enjoys plenty of interest from the IndyCar paddock. “I can’t say anything really, but there are conversations happening,” Kirkwood says. “There’s a bunch of different scenarios that could happen, there’s no one sure route at the moment. But there’s not a lot of seats to fill, especially not ones that are not requesting a big budget behind the driver. So it’s tough, but we’re trying to push every door open that we can. I talk to pretty much every team, but some moving parts need to come together for something to happen.”
If Kirkwood does grab the Lights title this weekend, he secures what could be considered the Grand Slam of American open-wheel feeder series: five championships in as many seasons (US F4, Formula Regional Americas, USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights). It would be an astonishing achievement, but the young man from Florida is unfazed by that possibility.
“I mean, it does mean something, but my ultimate goal is to get to IndyCar and once I get there to actually solidify my career, that’s the goal I want to achieve,” he says. “To be honest, everyone looks at my past and thinks I’ve done an amazing job, but I’m still not there yet, I’m still not satisfied. Until I solidified myself in IndyCar and am competitive, I won’t be satisfied.”
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