With open-wheel phenom Kyle Kirkwood using the word “ecstatic” in a social media post at the announcement of his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES ride – “This is pretty much the best moment of my life,” he later said in the media conference call -- his new employer should be excited, too.
A.J. Foyt Racing certainly is, team president Larry Foyt said.
“It’s really exciting,” Foyt said. “When you have a guy that’s had the results he’s had and is young and enthusiastic and excited to get in the race car, people want to work with him.”
It can be argued that Kirkwood being named to A.J. Foyt’s iconic No. 14 Chevrolet is one of the most intriguing aspects of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Kirkwood has dominated four consecutive open-wheel classes, including Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in the recently completed season, and now brings his infectious and upbeat personality – and talent – to one of INDYCAR’s smallest teams.
A.J. Foyt Racing last won an INDYCAR race in 2013 (Takuma Sato at Long Beach), but it showed strength in several races this year when Sebastien Bourdais wasn’t collected in another competitor’s mess, as happened three times. The Frenchman scored a pair of top-five finishes, led 22 laps and also finished fourth in the final race of the 2020 season. Tony Kanaan used the entry to finish ninth in the 2019 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and finish third at World Wide Technology Raceway, both oval tracks.
As Kirkwood noted, amid the most competitive environment in global motorsports, the right combination of driver and engineer can produce the necessary gains to make a difference, and Kirkwood is universally considered to be a difference-maker. He believes the team can be, too, comparing it to where RP Motorsports was when he joined it for the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 season.
“I think (RPM) finished fifth or sixth in the championship (the previous season) and missed a couple of races, but I saw what the team wanted to do, and I believed in them,” Kirkwood said. “We ended up winning nine of the 16 races (and won) the championship.
“I think this is a pretty similar position in that we’re all hungry, we all want to do really well and yeah, I’m excited to try and push everyone forward to try and build an amazing team.”
Kirkwood became available to the Foyt team when Andretti Autosport released him ahead of their Nov. 1 commitment date. Kirkwood said he had “other options” for a full-season ride – he did not name them -- but he said Foyt presented “the best opportunity.” It only took about 10 days for them to iron out the details and sign a one-year contract.
“The way (Larry Foyt) spoke about everything and what he wanted to do with the team, the entire team is so hungry to get back up front,” Kirkwood said.
The team expects to again field Dalton Kellett in the No. 4 car, also a Chevrolet, and still could be a three-car team for some 2022 races. Kirkwood’s engineer has not been identified, but the opportunity to work with Kirkwood should be enticing.
Kirkwood has won 31 of the past 50 races in the Road to Indy program, leading to three consecutive championships. This year in Indy Lights, he led 49.5 percent of the laps. Yes, he has had first-rate equipment as his 16 poles would suggest, but he also has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable car control.
Kirkwood was particularly proud of the early laps of this year’s second race at Portland International Raceway. Starting fourth, he out-braked Benjamin Pederson for third place entering Turn 1, then ran down the leaders. When Linus Lundqvist locked up the brakes trying to pass David Malukas on Lap 2, Kirkwood went around the outside of both drivers in Turn 2 to grab the lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
“To be honest, I get more satisfaction from progressing (through the field) than I do just from winning,” he said.
Kirkwood cited a race this year at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where he was quickest virtually in every session and won the race from the pole. He said such races “aren’t the ones that are super enjoyable.”
“The ones like Portland where we’re qualifying fourth or fifth and being able to go right to the front again based off of what I’m able to do and what we’re able to do with the car and progress through the weekend I think pays way more satisfaction to me than anything else,” he said. “If we can take a car that, hey, maybe we don’t qualify that well but we put together a really good race car and we’re able to make up a bunch of positions, that’s way more satisfactory to me than just being out front and sailing off into the distance.
“Yeah, so at the end of the day I think progression creates a lot more satisfaction for me.”
Kirkwood, 23, continues INDYCAR’s youth movement that saw four drivers under the age of 24 win races -- Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay and Colton Herta – and Palou won the season championship in his second INDYCAR year. The other three drivers came from winning Indy Lights programs, something Kirkwood, David Malukas and Devlin DeFrancesco hope to do in 2022.
Now, Kirkwood has a team with which to pursue that first win.
“Oh, man, I’m absolutely over the moon right now to be driving for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14, filling in some really big shoes with Bourdais leaving,” he said. “I’m at a loss for words because I’m ecstatic. It’s been my entire career building up to this moment, all the way from karting.
“It’s incredible – I couldn’t ask for a better predicament. There’s so much history with the team and with all the drivers that have been through that car and I’m able to put my name on that list in my first-ever INDYCAR season. I mean, how much happier could I get?
“This is pretty much the best moment of my life.”