Kyle Kirkwood can feel the pressure many people put on him – to break records, to win championships, to be the next great NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver – all of it, and he admits sometimes it can get to him.
On Oct. 3, Kirkwood entered the final race of the Indy Lights season with the championship all but secured driving the No. 28 Andretti Autosport entry. Drive a trouble-free race, and Kirkwood would win his third championship in as many seasons on the Road to Indy ladder system.
On top of winning the championship and becoming the first driver to win all three Road to Indy titles – USF2000 in 2018, Indy Pro 2000 in 2019 and Indy Lights in 2021 – Kirkwood was looking to break the record for the most wins in an Indy Lights season. He tied Greg Moore with 10 wins by triumphing Oct. 2 in the first race of the season-ending doubleheader at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and a win Sunday would break the record set in 1995.
With so much running through the 22-year-old’s mind and treacherous track conditions due to heavy rain, Kirkwood admits it became hard to focus. He went off track in qualifying for the first time since preseason testing and lightly grazed the wall.
“Originally, everyone was putting a lot of pressure, saying, ‘Kyle has a chance to beat Greg Moore’s record for most wins,’” Kirkwood said. “I was stiving to try and do that. That’s probably most of the reason I went off in qualifying.”
It took a recalibration of sorts for Kirkwood to put the weekend in perspective. He came to terms with the fact that he already had 10 wins on the season through 19 races and told himself that he didn’t need to win every single race.
Instead, he set his sights on the near future of being crowned Indy Lights champion and the distant future of what that could do for his career. He finished fifth in the second race, enough to seal the title with a 537-524 edge over runner-up David Malukas in the final standings.
“I realized we got to look at the bigger picture here, and we need to win this championship here,” he said. “It was kind of damage limitation for most of the race until I heard that we had already won it (due to a driver retiring from the race), and then I started driving harder again. I was just trying to think of the smartest way around this whole thing.”
It was a mature mindset for a driver in his early 20’s, and the title landed Kirkwood a scholarship valued at more than $1.3 million to ensure entry into at least three NTT INDYCAR SERIES races in 2022, including the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The reality that Kirkwood will be on the entry list for next year’s race has not yet set in.
“It’s everything I’ve dreamed of as a kid, really,” he said. “I remember watching the Indy 500 when I was a child in karting and looking up to all those guys, every single one of them that would qualify or not qualify. I would’ve loved to be in any of their positions, and now I’m getting the opportunity to next year. It’s a great feeling, no doubt.”
While Kirkwood has earned his place in North America’s premier open-wheel series, he’s appreciative of how he has arrived at this point, insisting he’s been in good equipment and situations for most of his racing career.
Now the hard work begins as he starts training like an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver. First on his to-do list is to gain more weight and muscle. He estimates he’s 12-15 pounds lighter than he was at the beginning of the season. He also wants to begin heat training to help him adapt to longer races in hotter cockpits.
These are just the first few items on a long list of tasks Kirkwood believes he needs to do to reach his goal and becoming an NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion. But he’s also trying to live up to the hype.
Kirkwood is arguably one of the most heralded drivers to come from the Road to Indy ladder system. More than becoming the first driver to win scholarships on all three Road to Indy levels, Kirkwood scored an impressive 31 wins in 50 starts since making his USF2000 debut in 2018.
With the statistics come expectations, and Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Florida, hopes to match them. But he knows the NTT INDYCAR SERIES competition is at a higher level.
“It is quite a bit of pressure because people expect me to get into an Indy car now and be very fast because in the past five categories I’ve ran in I’ve been quick,” he said. “Everyone is like, ‘He’s going to get into an Indy car, and he’ll be fast right away.’ Which I don’t know if that’s the case or not. I have no idea.
“But there’s a lot of expectation for me. So, there is a bit of pressure, but at the same time every year I go in with the same mentality knowing it could be my year or it could not be. I try not to put too much pressure on myself and do the best I can. It usually works out.”