Kyle Kirkwood wasn’t used to a year that he endured as a rookie in the NTT INDYCAR Series a season ago. The American driver is the all-time winningest driver in the history of the Road to Indy. He’s won race during each and every step of the process and was deserving of a ride at the top in 2022. However, there wasn’t any room at the inn (Andretti Autosport) in 2022 which allowed him to look elsewhere.
AJ Foyt Racing was the destination.
While expectations weren’t necessarily high for Kirkwood to come out and set the world a blaze, especially for a team that hasn’t won race since 2013, it wasn’t in Kirkwood’s DNA to just punt on his rookie year either. He knew that his tenure with Foyt would be a short one because eventually, Andretti was going to bring him back home. He just needed to gain experience and learn the most he could as a rookie in this series.
“I wouldn’t say it grilled me mentally. I kind of understood what the expectations were,” he said. “I wasn’t showing up to INDYCAR and being like, oh, I can’t wait to go win some races in INDYCAR. That’s kind of not the mentality that I had. I expected to probably get some top 10s. We got one top 10, and I knew I needed to learn, and it’s shown me, as I’ve now gotten through the year, my first rookie INDYCAR season, and look back at it now, I’ve just learned so much. That’s the biggest thing I’m taking away from it, not any of the finishes.”
In saying that, Kirkwood isn’t used to running at the back either, so at times, he pushed too hard to make gains towards the front and in the process, mistakes were made.
“I mean, that’s completely fair to say. You could definitely say that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, when you’re 20th and you feel stuck, naturally you’re not going to just give up, you’re going to push to the absolute limits. In a sense that’s what we did. We overachieved some places and we underachieved by trying to overachieve at some other places. It’s unfortunate events, but I learned so much and I can’t wait to take what I learned into this season.”
With Alexander Rossi leaving Andretti for Arrow McLaren for the upcoming season, it left a seat back open with the team that Kirkwood on the Indy Lights title for in 2021. He was the natural replacement.
“I’ve got kind of a reference of what the Andretti Autosport car is already like,” he notes. “I did three days in the car preseason to 2022. It’s kind of funny because 2022, I felt like the entire year I was trying to mimic what the Andretti car was like, and I feel like I kind of never got to that point with the AJ Foyt car.
“I’m so curious to get back in that car and see and know what we were missing. It’s something that’s kind of been eating me alive through the off-season because you know that’s something that Andretti is not going to tell me. But once I get in the car and I’m able to feel it, it’s going to be pretty cool.
“I’m excited. I couldn’t be more ecstatic about this opportunity and getting back with a team that I won a championship and a very important one to my career.”
Kirkwood also notes that not many rookies get a chance with a top team anyways so paying your dues elsewhere can lead to more success when the opportunity does arise.
“Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of people that look at it that way,” he said. “If you look at one of the most successful teams being Penske, they don’t take rookies. That’s kind of how it goes.
“To that point, Colton did the same thing. He was with Harding Racing when he started off. He had a very successful season there with them. But it’s nice to have that transition year, right, where you have — where you’re able to hone in on your skills and learn everything, but even with that being said, last year for me, I was fully focused on doing so well with that team and trying to progress them forward and stuff.
“But now that I’ve gotten into this year now and taken this step back and kind of looked at it, I was like, man, I needed a year to learn and try and hone in on my skills and learn all the different things about INDYCAR that you don’t learn in junior formulas. Biggest thing is pit stops and strategy and having two different types of tires. Those are way different than anything I’ve done.”
Andretti has had some down years lately but Kirkwood expects the team to get back to their old ways in 2023. However, they’re going to be lean on experience though in the process.
Andretti Autosport boasts one of the more inexperienced lineups in the paddock. Yes, they have 4 drivers, but combined, 3 of them have 1 full-time season under their belts. Romain Grosjean was part-time in 2021 but moved to his first full-time foray in INDYCAR with Andretti in 2022. He has made 30 career starts.
Devlin DeFrancesco was a rookie last year. Same for Kirkwood.
Colton Herta is now the lead man of the group. Is he ready for that? Herta has made more starts himself (65) than the other three (64) combined. He’s also only 22 and the youngest of the grouping as well. As the highest paid driver in the paddock, is he ready for this type of role?
“It’s not much of a difference for me,” Herta said. “Maybe they’ll rely a little bit more on my feedback and I might have to do a little bit more, but for me, it’s kind of business as usual.”
His teammates see it exactly that way as Herta describes. He doesn’t have to be that vocal leader, it’s his data and feedback to what will help them propel their programs forward.
“I’d say it’s a little bit different with Andretti. I think Colton’s way of saying that he’s like kind of brushed off his leadership role is in a sense that he’s not beating on his chest, like I’m a driver; everyone kind of bows down to me. He’s trying to brush that away,” said Kirkwood.
“But at the end of the day, he’s the one with the most experience, and if he does something, we’re kind of going to ask him the questions, be like, hey, Colton, when you tried this, what exactly happened, because he’s the one with the most experience, and he’s been the most successful driver on the team that we’ve had. It’s a sure thing that we’re going to reference off of him, which in a sense makes him kind of the lead driver, yeah.
“It’s definitely a unique situation, but at the end of the day he’s the one with the most experience. He has a right to be kind of in that position. It’s not a — I’ll say it again, it’s not a position that we’re all expecting him to lead us on track or expecting him to lead us off track and lead us with car development. He’s ultimately our main source of contact really.”