Without AJ Allmendinger’s help, Kirkwood may not be driving for Foyt next season, how this deal came about

INDIANAPOLIS — The path to success in Motorsports is a wild journey to the top. There are times in this sport to where talent can only take you so far. Talent is just an unfortunate fraction of a larger equation. Just look at Kyle Kirkwood as a prime example.

The Florida native is as good as it gets. He’s as advertised.

Kirkwood, is a can’t miss NTT IndyCar Series prospect. He’s the equivalent to INDYCAR to what a coveted college quarterback is to the NFL. The one that has teams salivating at the potential and ironically hoping that they suck just enough in order to get that No. 1 pick in the draft the next year and get that said player that can alter the course of the entire franchise moving forward.

Kirkwood is that guy in racing. AJ Foyt inherited a steal by snatching him up.

The thing is, racing is different, remember. If employment was based on talent alone, Kirkwood would have no troubles looking for a ride. There’d be a line the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway waiting for her services.

He’d be the one everyone wants but the money equation plays a large role here.

Talent should be enough but unfortunately in racing, that’s not always the case.

“I was surprised that Kyle didn’t have a full-time deal,” Larry Foyt said on Wednesday afternoon when announcing the signing of Kirkwood to the No. 14 Chevrolet for them.

Kirkwood, is on a one year deal with Foyt for 2022 as the lead driver in the 14 car. It’s one they didn’t want to have multiple drivers split time in it. They wanted one full time driver and Kirkwood was somehow there for the taking.

How did this all happen?

Before we get to the know, you have to rewind back to a decade or so ago. That’s where this journey truly begins.

That dates back to him in his early teenage years. Kirkwood, wouldn’t even be here today without a sponsor from an unlikely source. That source?

AJ Allmendinger.

Yes, the same NASCAR driver. Without Allmendinger’s help, Kirkwood’s racing career likely doesn’t get off the ground. With it, he’s became an INDYCAR driver with signs showing he’s going to be a star.

“Really that starts all the way back from AJ Allmendinger back in 2012 where he sponsored me in a karting scholarship,” Kirkwood said.

So, how did this all come about where a Florida teenager met a California race car driver to spark a relationship?

“So the relationship with AJ is he was actually karting with a team called Kart Sport North America, which they actually own GoPro Motorplex now in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Mooresville, North Carolina, and we got along pretty well,” Kirkwood told me. “At the time I was racing — what was I, 13 years old racing Minimax, I believe, and we did a national race together.

“He had the scholarship program come out, and I had a fantastic season and he decided to pick me. That’s how the relationship came about, and yeah, I don’t think — I probably wouldn’t have been able to compete in a lot of the races that I raced in in 2012 and 2013, I believe, if it wasn’t for him.

“It definitely — he definitely had a role in where I’m at at this moment.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – AUGUST 15: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Hyperice Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

See, Kirkwood notes that the right amount of support from the right areas and the right mix of talent is what it takes to succeed. You don’t get a lot of ROI by sponsoring a car in a feeder series but you have to have the talent to attract a person to believe in you and back your early career.

Allmendinger was just the start of that.

“Definitely not,” Kirkwood told Steve Wittich of Trackside Online on if he’d be here today without sponsorship money. “Pretty much my entire career has been based off of scholarships and people bringing me along, so I’m very thankful.”

Kirkwood had Allemendinger to start, then a Skip Barber scholarship, a Team USA scholarship, and then F4 he had the scholarship to F3, and then from USF2000 he had the scholarship Indy Pro, scholarship into Indy Lights.

“Without any of that, I definitely wouldn’t be in this position right now because as everyone knows, it costs a lot of money to do racing, and in those lower levels you can’t really bring sponsorship along because there’s not much return on investment for sponsors. Without the scholarships I would not be at this point,” he continued.

He won championships which netted him scholarship money each time, but it all sparks to that Allmendinger meeting to get him going.

Allmendinger, used to be an open wheel driver to begin with. He started off with the Barber Dodge Series, then Toyota Atlantics then to Champ Car. That was his path before moving south to stock cars. That path then led Allmendinger in directly to Kirkwood.

Without that move, Allmendinger isn’t living in North Carolina. He’s not tied to a go kart track. Kirkwood, isn’t showing up there and meeting Allmendinger and a successful race car driver isn’t there to witness what Kirkwood could do in a kart of his own.

The California native saw a lot of Kirkwood to back up. Now, a record setting amount of wins (31) in the Road to Indy program including a championship in all three rungs of the ladders in as many years including a 10 win championship season in Indy Lights this past year has led Kirkwood to Foyt.

His 10 races wins tied Greg Moore’s series record set in 1995 to go along with seven poles in 20 races.

Kirkwood, 23, is also the only driver to win championships in all three divisions of the Road to Indy (RTI) presented by Cooper Tires ladder system, and he did it in consecutive seasons: USF2000 in 2018, Indy Pro 2000 in 2019 and Indy Lights this year (the 2020 Indy Lights season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Kirkwood received his first kart at age four and began racing them a year later. He won numerous races and titles before moving into cars in 2016 when he competed in the inaugural F4 series. That same year he won a Team USA scholarship and competed at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone. In 2017, Kirkwood dominated the F4 U.S. Championship with nine victories and six poles in 20 races.

The following year, he won the Cooper Tires USF2000 title with 12 wins in 14 races driving for Cape Motorsports. He won 15 of 17 races to claim the F3 Americas Championship powered by Honda. Driving for RP Motorsports in 2019, he won the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with nine victories and five poles in 16 races. His move to the Indy Lights division was delayed when the pandemic halted racing in the Road to Indy ladder series in 2020.

That’s as good as it gets and he was available for the taking. Foyt took it.

A can’t miss product with Foyt? That path was forged when Andretti Autosport couldn’t retain him. His option was up on Nov. 1 and without Andretti being able to pull off an F1 team and them already having a plan for Devlin DeFrancesco to take over the No. 29 Honda, they had no room for Kirkwood.

“Unfortunately they got to pretty much 1-yard line with it and it didn’t work out,” Kirkwood said of the Andretti deal. “Ultimately Michael made it aware to everyone that I would have ended up in the 26 car for the season, but no, this works out perfectly for me. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of everything.

Ultimately I’m driving in INDYCAR full time next season.”

Remember, it takes money. DeFrancesco, has it but not the stats. Kirkwood has the stats but not the money DeFrancesco can. When Foyt found out Kirkwood was available, they moved quick.

“It was just one of those things everyone kind of assumed he was locked up where he was. When I found out that he was available, it was kind of a no-brainer for us,” Foyt said. “The kid deserves to be in a full-time INDYCAR ride, and obviously with Seb doing his sports car things there were some conflicts there, and I think we really wanted a full-time driver in the 14 car. It just really worked out perfectly for us.”

Kirkwood says that Andretti had that option period until November 1st but they released him from that actually a little bit early, and he and Larry got in contact and we spoke a little bit and thought this was a perfect match for both of them, and it happened rather quickly.

It took less than 10 days to get a deal done and now Kirkwood is an INDYCAR driver on a full-time basis. The thing is, the deal is just one year in length. Does that add to the pressure for a Foyt team that hasn’t won since Long Beach in 2013 to show up with a competitive car to allow Kirkwood to showcase his talents with them?

I mean, this is a product you don’t get to find everyday landing in your lap. Someone of his talents usually ends up with teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. But with them all full, Foyt was there to pounce with funding likely in place to fill the 14 race gap that Kirkwood doesn’t have the funding for.

“I don’t think it’s pressure, I think it’s more excitement,” Foyt told me on if they have to rise to Kirkwood’s abilities as a team to match his craft in order to keep him. “Like I said, I think people want to work with him. They’re excited about his record. But also for us, yeah, we definitely — we are working to elevate the team, and when you’ve got someone excited to be with you and do it, it just definitely helps.

“You know, that’s a lot on me and Scott Harner is we’ve got to put the best people around him we can and let him do his thing, so that’s the plan.”

Does this push them the closest that they’ve been in a while to ending that winless drought?

“Yeah, I think what we’ve seen is if you get the right driver-engineer combination together in INDYCAR you can be successful even if you are a smaller team and don’t have quite the resources,” said Foyt. “I mean, obviously right now in INDYCAR being a mostly spec-type series, the damper department is where you’ve got to put a lot of resources, and we got a little bit behind on that, but we’ve been working hard to really update and make that department a priority, and we’re putting a lot of our resources into that for next year. We have some exciting things coming down the road. I think it’s going to pay dividends, and we’re excited to see what that does on track.

“Like I said earlier, a couple tenths in this series is huge. I think if you can find a little bit of that elusive grip that the drivers always want, give them that feeling they’re looking for, you can be right up front in INDYCAR.”

This could be the moment Foyt needed to get back towards the top. Kirkwood is that good.

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