Kyle Kirkwood may be the very definition of a rising star: successful on every rung of the Road to Indy as the only driver to win all three championships in consecutive years and fast in a race car fielded by a team with fewer resources than others.
Despite his ascendant status and pulling double duty this weekend at Detroit racing in both the NTT IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the driver from Florida remains focused on the task at hand.
On the first day of the final Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, Kirkwood’s primary task was making it through a twice-red-flagged Practice 1 unscathed. He did so with ease and ended the session with the fastest lap: a 1:16.1345 in the No. 14 Chevrolet he drives for AJ Foyt Racing.
Mastering the Raceway at Belle Isle Park stands as one of the more challenging hills to climb for an IndyCar rookie. Nevertheless, Kirkwood set the day’s quickest lap, with two-hundredths of a second to spare over 2021 Detroit race winner Pato O’Ward.
O’Ward sits second in the championship standings with 213 points and trails only Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson. Kirkwood, with 77 points, ranks 21st, just behind Tony Kanaan, who earned a whopping 78 points for his third-place finish on Memorial Day weekend in his only scheduled 2022 appearance.
The drivers’ seasons are markedly different thus far, with one similarity: their early identification as potential stars, based on performances in junior formulae and, in the case of O’Ward, a brief sojourn in IMSA.
With O’Ward having established himself as a frontrunner on the strength of his talent and the immense resources of McLaren, Kirkwood looks to be on a similar path with his recent appointment to Andretti Autosport for 2023 in place of Alexander Rossi.
It might be reasonable to expect Kirkwood to begin looking forward to next year and the benefits a more prominent, better-funded team will bring, yet the 23-year-old remains focused on the present weekend.
“For me, it’s been the same thing,” said Kirkwood in the post-practice press conference. “It’s the same goal always. We’ve got 11 races left. Right now, we’re doing solid.
“Obviously, the focus is still with AJ Foyt Racing and the ROKit Chevrolet because all I want to do is win for the team because they worked really hard for it.”
Opening the three-day race weekend in Detroit with a chart-topping lap time suggests a win is possible in the Motor City. However, it also demonstrates Kirkwood’s driving acumen to the Foyt team combined with the team’s progression.
What it means beyond Detroit isn’t the focus for the driver.
“I’ve always just focused on one weekend at a time,” said Kirkwood. “I can’t be like, ‘this weekend went well, so the next weekend is going to go definitely well.’ I think that’s not the right mindset. I think you have to be focused on what’s going on at the present time.”
Because he’s also racing a Lexus RC F GT3 for Vasser Sullivan in the WeatherTech Championship, Kirkwood also owns the fastest lap in the GT Daytona ranks, thanks to a pole-winning qualifying performance.
A dual-race weekend is nothing new for IndyCar in Detroit, as the Grand Prix has been a doubleheader in the past. However, two races in two days in entirely different cars is an altogether different situation and one which Kirkwood downplayed.
“The GT car is so easy to drive that I don’t think it takes anything away,” said Kirkwood. “Power steering, ABS, all that stuff. We got a helmet blower, cool suit. It’s icy cold in that Lexus car. It’s not hindering my performance whatsoever.
“I think the fact that last year the guys ran two races in one weekend was a lot worse than me doing a one-hour, 40-minute GTD race then racing the next day in INDYCAR.”
Based on his words, many descriptors could apply to Kirkwood’s attitude. Humility perhaps stands as the biggest differentiator between the future Andretti driver and his McLaren rival. O’Ward’s burgeoning stardom has as much to do with his brash confidence as his on-track performance.
Low-key Kirkwood might discount the importance of topping the Practice 1 timesheet or being quick in two wildly different race cars. Still, his performances this year and throughout his Road to Indy development speak for themselves. With 11 race weekends to go, that first win might yet come.
With next year’s Andretti seat, expectations will undoubtedly change. Kirkwood would do well to maintain the even keel that has characterized his rookie season thus far.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-posting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.