Kyle Kirkwood

Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay have won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races this year. Don’t think Indy Lights drivers haven’t noticed.

The Road to Indy path to INDYCAR has seemingly become more established with each passing season, and 22 of the participants in this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge are a product of at least one step in the program. Thirteen active drivers have won INDYCAR races as Indy Lights graduates.

The number of Indy Lights drivers advancing to INDYCAR each year always varies based on the number of open seats and the financial backing that’s available, but the confidence INDYCAR team owners have in the Road to Indy as a development program is genuine, which bodes well for this class.

Indy Lights has five race weekends remaining beginning with the Aug. 19-21 event at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and three drivers are solidly in contention for the championship that delivers $1 million to be applied to an INDYCAR opportunity next season. Leading the way is Kyle Kirkwood, who has won five of the past six races – and six overall with three poles – in a car fielded by Andretti Autosport, the two-time defending series champions.

Kirkwood leads David Malukas of HMD Motorsports by 11 points and Linus Lundqvist of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports by 25 points. The three have combined to win all 12 races this season, but the depth of the field is illustrated by eight drivers scoring multiple top-three finishes. That list includes Devlin DeFrancesco of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, Benjamin Pedersen of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports, Toby Sowery of Juncos Racing, and Danial Frost and Robert Megennis of Andretti Autosport. Alex Peroni of Carlin also has a podium finish.

The 22-year-old Kirkwood, of Jupiter, Florida, has been the dominant Road to Indy driver over the past several years. He dominated the first two steps in the ladder program, tying JR Hildebrand’s USF2000 record by winning 12 (of 14) races in 2018. The next year, he won nine of the final 11 races in the Indy Pro 200 series to capture his second consecutive series title. He is now in his second season driving for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team co-owned by INDYCAR team owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, a ride he took in 2020 when the Indy Lights season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kirkwood likely would be riding a six-race winning streak if not for a late-race mechanical failure at Road America. His title hopes are helped by the fact the series will end the season at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his favorite track on the circuit where he recently swept a doubleheader. The combination of factors is why he believes “momentum is in our favor.”

The Chicago-born Malukas is in his second Indy Lights season and is making the most of this one. After being involved in a crash on the opening lap of the season’s first race, at Barber Motorsports Park, the 20-year-old driver has completed every lap and won the second race at three events (Barber, St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road race). Like Kirkwood, he has won three poles, converting each of those into race wins.

Sweden’s 22-year-old Lundqvist, who won the season-opening race and the first IMS race, has a 2018 British F3 championship to his resume. Like Kirkwood and Malukas – and perhaps one or two other current Indy Lights drivers – he has designs on racing in INDYCAR as soon as next year.

All three of these Indy Lights title contenders are drivers to watch for the future.

“There’s this youth movement happening (in INDYCAR) with Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and Patricio O’Ward – they have been doing so good this year and that definitely helps all the younger drivers coming through the Road to Indy categories,” Kirkwood said. “I know there’s interest (from INDYCAR teams). I know David is really interested in going to INDYCAR, (and) I’m pretty sure Linus is, as well.

“Our group is so strong.”

Indy Lights races can be viewed on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service that also shows INDYCAR practice and qualifying sessions.