LONG BEACH, Calif. – It was obvious to NTT IndyCar Series team owner Michael Andretti that Kyle Kirkwood was a potential star of the future early in his racing career.
Saturday on the streets of Long Beach, Kirkwood proved he is “The Real Deal.”
The 24-year-old driver from Jupiter, Florida, won the pole for Sunday’s 48th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach – the biggest street race in North America and the second-biggest race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule behind the Indianapolis 500.
LONG BEACH PRIMER: Details, schedules for watching IndyCar this weekend
Kirkwood won the pole in just his third race for Andretti Autosport after spending his rookie season on loan to AJ Foyt Racing.
But the fact Kirkwood is this good, this fast is not a surprise.
His pedigree in racing is impressive. He was successful on every rung of the lower formulas, even before he joined the “Road to Indy” Ladder system.
He won the Formula 4 United States Championship in 2017. In 2018, he won dueling championships in both USF2000 and the F3 Americas Championship. In 2019, he was the Indy Pro 2000 champion and moved into the top step of the ladder, which is now known as INDY NXT as he won the 2021 Indy Lights Championship.
Team owner Michael Andretti knew that Kirkwood was ready for IndyCar but did not have an immediate opening on his team. When Ryan Hunter-Reay announced he was leaving Andretti Autosport, the 28 DHL Honda went to former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean.
RETWEET to congratulate @KKirkwoodRacing on his first career pole!
He’ll lead the field to green in the @GPLongBeach Sunday at 3P ET. #INDYCAR pic.twitter.com/NiErBJBfaE
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 15, 2023
It was James Hinchcliffe’s departure from Andretti Autosport to the NBC Sports booth that created the opening with Kirkwood and Devlin DeFrancesco the two main contenders.
Andretti chose De Francesco because he was the fastest in a test session at Barber Motorsports Park but agreed to send Kirkwood to AJ Foyt Racing for the 2022 season on the understanding that Kirkwood would get the next opening at Andretti.
The team concluded early in the 2022 season that Alexander Rossi would leave the team at the end of the season as the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 would join Arrow McLaren.
Kirkwood was back home again at Andretti Autosport and proved why he was such a valuable prospect to the team so far in 2023.
He made the Firestone Fast Six for the March 5 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Peterburg and was a contender in the race but was involved in a crash with Jack Harvey when Kirkwood’s No. 27 AutoNation Honda went airborne.
He finished the race 15th, three laps down to race winner Marcus Ericsson.
He qualified 20th at Texas Motor Speedway for the April 2 PPG 375 but was involved in a controversial pit-lane crash that took out Rossi in the race.
Kirkwood was blamed by Rossi for the incident on pit lane and took a lot of criticism on social media, though he didn’t share that viewpoint (and also had many in his corner, as well as the vindication that IndyCar penalized Rossi for the incident).
He bounced back in impressive fashion Saturday with a fast lap in the closing seconds of Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six. He whipped the No. 27 AutoNation Honda around the tight 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course in 1:06.2878 to win the first pole of his NTT IndyCar Series career.
Afterward, team owner Andretti proclaimed Kirkwood to be “The Real Deal.”
“Yeah, he’s the real deal,” Andretti said. “I’m happy for him. He’s been a pleasure on the team. We’re really excited, really happy for the results. Romain Grosjean also did a great job. Obviously, he was on used tires. Kyle was on new tires. He put in a really good lap.
“I’m really, really happy.”
Andretti also talked out how important it was for Kirkwood to leave Andretti Autosport for the 2022 season and work on his race craft with AJ Foyt Racing, a team that has less resources than Andretti Autosport, but also less pressure.
“I think it was huge, to be honest with you,” Andretti responded. “A rookie is definitely going to make mistakes and things like that, just because you’re learning, right?
“By him having that year, coming to us, it worked out perfect for us. You see it right away, he’s competitive. Hopefully he can win a bunch of races.”
Kirkwood reflected on the value of working with Foyt and how it taught him how to handle a faster car on a team that has more tools to work with.
“It was extremely beneficial,” Kirkwood said. “It was an important thing to learn. For me at AJ Foyt Racing, I spent a lot of time learning. There wasn’t a ton of media, there wasn’t a ton of sponsors that you had to take away from learning. A lot of it was on track and off track, learning what an Indy car does and what the changes do and understanding the data from it. It was all new to me.
“Having that year away from Andretti Autosport with AJ Foyt Racing was crucial. Starting this year, I already feel I can go for poles and for wins.
“If I had gone into 2022 straight into Andretti Autosport like I thought was going to happen at the end of 2021, I would have been thrown into the deep end with sharks, to be honest.
“I’m really happy with the direction that we took.”
Kirkwood proved he learned those lessons well in Saturday’s qualifications.
With time winding down in the Firestone Fast Six, Andretti Autosport had held back a set of tires for Kirkwood to get the most out of his Honda.
It was the ultimate “Man vs. Machine” moment, as the young driver knew he had to perform and get the most out of his car to reap the rewards that come in a timed battle on the race track.
“For me, I just knew I needed to execute,” Kirkwood explained. “We were the only one with new tires. We knew we had a fast car. We were within a hundredth of Pato before. Quickest in our first group. There were a lot of variables in our favor.
“I just knew I needed to execute. It felt like a really good lap that I put together.
“It ultimately got us the pole.”
Just three races into his Andretti Autosport IndyCar Series career, Kirkwood as the “Master of Faster” with his first career IndyCar pole.
“I was hopeful it would happen this quickly,” the driver said. “I was hopeful it would happen at St. Pete. We were extremely fast there.
“Ultimately, it’s a testament to the team. Andretti Autosport does a phenomenal job. I feel like we’ve made a leap from last season based on my understanding. I wasn’t with them last season. Based on what the drivers talk about, we’re in a really good direction. I feel like the car is in a really good spot. For instance, in that entire qualifying session, I didn’t touch a thing, brakes, bars. This is good enough; we can go for the pole like this. That was the case.
“It just shows how good the team is flowing. It’s important weekends like this when you roll out of the trailer well, and I feel like we did. It’s just been enjoyable. It creates a calmness throughout the team. To have that calmness is super beneficial.”
It takes a lot of outside variables to win a race in the very competitive NTT IndyCar Series including race strategy, flawless pit stops and being on the favorable side of good fortune.”
In qualifications, it’s a chance for the driver to extract pure, raw speed from his racing machine and display the bravado of taking the car to the very edge – and even beyond – to go as fast as possible.
“I’m not really sure what it is, but I feel comfortable up against walls,” Kirkwood explained. “I found that I’ve thrived on it.
“That comes from karting. We used to have a karting event called Super Nuts. I’d always do phenomenal there regardless of the equipment I was in. I guess that has translated over to IndyCar now.
“It’s just stuff that I’ve enjoyed. I feel like I understand the limits of the car very well.”
Now that Kirkwood proved he can master the skills of winning a pole in the NTT IndyCar Series, the next step is closing out a race weekend in victory lane as the winner.
Team owner Andretti decided to enhance Kirkwood’s efforts by switching race strategists before the April 2 race at Texas Motor Speedway, moving Bryan Herta from Colton Herta’s timing stand to work with Kirkwood.
“Well, we almost did it last year,” Andretti explained. “The reason was I think we felt like for the team it would be better. Brian Barnhart was supposed to be on Colton’s car. Then that changed (when Barnhart became general manager at Arrow McLaren).
“We were like, ‘What do we do?’
“For the first race we decided to go and keep it the way it was. Then we decided after that that we think Bryan being on his radio will be a lot more beneficial. That’s the real reason.
“It’s great for a young driver. He helped Colton I think a lot when he started out. I think we just felt like it was better for the team.”
He also picked a great race to claim his first pole, coming in one of the most prestigious street course races in the world that is one of the cornerstone events of American racing.
“I’m ecstatic,” Kirkwood said. “Starting in the front of a field in a street course is always super beneficial. That first pole is extremely meaningful to someone.
“To have it here at Long Beach with such a big crowd is such a cool thing.”
It was also a chance for the Andretti Autosport driver to overcome the adversity from the “Blame Game” he was part of from the pit lane incident at Texas.
Kirkwood showed the best way to overcome adversity is to meet it head-on with success in the next event.
“You just want to get back in the car,” he explained. “For some reason, whenever you get in the car, all of that disappears. I don’t know if that’s just me or if that’s most drivers.
“When I sit in the car, everything else tends to just disappear that happens, right, because you take a reset. For me, whenever a situation like that happens, I just get back in the car because then I can redeem myself almost because I know I can.
“Other than that, I mean, it was a little bit frustrating, but it wasn’t something that was going to necessarily affect my performance because I was thinking about it. No doubt.
“There are so many opinions (of what happened at Texas). I guess they didn’t match with mine.”
Kirkwood changed those opinions Saturday on the streets of Long Beach with a highly impressive performance under pressure by claiming the pole for the 48th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.