It took a village to turn Kyle Kirkwood into a winning IndyCar driver, and it took a neighborhood to celebrate the moment from 2,600 miles away.
When Kirkwood, 24, took the checkered flag April 15 in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Jupiter, Florida, subdivision where he was raised (and still lives now) erupted – and interrupted a raucous viewing party at the home of Peggy and Cam Kirkwood.
“We had a couple of the neighbors at our house and kids that Kyle grew up with and their babies,” Peggy Kirkwood told NBC Sports. “One of their mothers and fathers knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, the whole neighborhood’s outside!’ So I went outside, and everybody was screaming and yelling and honking their horns. I didn’t know the whole neighborhood was watching the race. It was really cool.”
INDYCAR AT BARBER: How to watch, schedules, start times for the race weekend
When Kyle arrived in South Florida from Southern California the following day, he was greeted by a massive “Congratulations!” banner and signs festooned with pink and white balloons to match the livery of No. 27 Dallara-Honda sponsor AutoNation (“it looked like, ‘Congrats for having a girl!’ but it was congrats to me,” Kyle cracked). Neighbors planted mini-checkered flags in the family’s front lawn.
Kirkwood had time to play a round of golf with his two older brothers (both of whom drove home immediately after his win), close on a new house nearby and celebrate with friends and family over a big dinner.
Then it was off again to Indianapolis for the Indy 500 Open Test – the fast-paced life of a budding superstar whose biggest and closest supporters also are accustomed to being often on the periphery of his career.
“It was just 24 hours of joy,” Cam Kirkwood told NBC Sports about his youngest son’s homecoming. “We’re sad we weren’t there for his first win, of course, but at the same time, the experience here was fantastic. Everyone jumped up and down with high-fives, hugs and tears. It was an emotional evening, especially for Mom and Dad.”
Peggy fondly recalls hearing an adolescent Kyle make “Vroom! Vroom!” noises in his bedroom and constantly draw racetrack shapes while “driving them in his mind.
“I’m just beyond humbled and grateful and relieved because this is what he has wanted all his life,” she said. “It shows with really consistent dedication, perseverance and hard work, you can make it. Because the sport for so long has been if you don’t have money, you can’t make it. Kyle is such a great story for the sport.”
It’s also a unique story in modern day motorsports and the NTT IndyCar Series, which is full of fathers, sons and the 200 mph ties that bind them – an angle evident in Kirkwood’s team.
Andretti Autosport is built on three generations of racing royalty and race winners in Mario, Michael and Marco. When star Colton Herta wins, a family celebration is immediate because Colton’s dad, Bryan, is an Andretti Autosport strategist (who called Kirkwood’s victory at Long Beach after previously being on Herta’s pit stand).
It’s been a much different path for the Kirkwoods, who relied on a steady diet of belief, faith and trust in the better angels who helped guide Kyle to the pinnacle of single-seater, open-cockpit racing in America.
INDYCAR POWER RANKINGS: Top 10 after Long Beach
“If you don’t know a lot, people in the racing industry actually are very helpful, and they want to see you succeed,” Kyle Kirkwood told NBC Sports. “The fact my family didn’t know anything about it might have helped a little bit. Because people were very willing to help you by me going into it saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything, I’m a good driver. Just tell me what to do.’
“But it definitely is different than most drivers who have come up in recent years. Most of the drivers in IndyCar now, their family has been in racing. My family knew nothing about cars and racing. They knew about competition, but that’s about it.
“And they can’t get to every race like most drivers’ parents can. I understand that. It’s just the way our families are. They’re still very supportive and still watch every single race. I always tell them a lot of races are better to watch from a couch. I’m never disappointed if they’re not there for a big moment like (Long Beach).”
Because of their full-time jobs (Cam is a Realtor; Peggy owns a small art gallery and school), the Kirkwoods plan to attend about half of the 17 races this season (Long Beach didn’t make the cut because of the distance and price).
But they’ll be at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend – and experiencing another new facet of racing.
The Kirkwoods plan to rent an RV and rough it while watching their youngest son compete as an IndyCar winner for the first time.
Last month, they tried camping for the first time at the Twelve Hours of Sebring – watching Kyle finish second with Vasser Sullivan Racing in the GTD Pro category while being exposed to the race’s infamous wilder side after unwittingly parking their Cruise America camper behind a party tent.
“There was a live band that sounded like it was playing inside our RV until 3:30 in the morning,” Cam said with a laugh. “We’re not used to that at our age, but the atmosphere was good, and it was an enjoyable event. We always show up the morning of the race and go home that night. So let’s try experiencing what everyone talks about with racetrack camping.”
That happy-go-lucky attitude has served the family well in racing. Kyle Kirkwood became a star driver because his dad wanted to expose him and his two older brothers to as many sports as possible.
But it also was because he wanted to get them something for Christmas.
Cam Kirkwood brought the family to the now-defunct Palm Beach International Raceway (once known as Moroso Motorsports Park) about 20 years ago for a November day of watching drag racing.
They stumbled across the facility’s go-kart track, which Cam and sons Robert and Cameron delighted in trying. At 4, Kyle was too small to drive but still mesmerized by both the dragsters and the karts.
“I thought it was the coolest thing under the sun,” he said. “I loved watching the cars go by and would have done it every single day if my parents would take me.”
They soon were taking him after Cam called a childhood friend from the Miami area who happened to be selling one of his son’s go-karts (a Fittipaldi chassis with an 80cc Comer engine).
“I thought that would be a cool present for the kids,” Cam said. “At first, they all drove, but Kyle was the only one who took interest in it. I’d get home from work, and he’d say, ‘Dad, I want to go to the track!’ ”
Winners at Long Beach. Massive thanks to @FollowAndretti @AutoNation & @HondaRacing_HPD pic.twitter.com/7StX9IrkvE
— Kyle M. Kirkwood (@KKirkwoodRacing) April 17, 2023
It would be a few years before Kyle was old enough to race, but he made countless laps in the interim. If he improved his time from the previous visit, Cam rewarded his son with an ice cream on their drive home.
“He’d beat it almost every time,” Cam said. “People started taking an interest. Mechanics said he’s got a natural ability at 5 years old. I was like, ‘Really?’ ”
Said Kyle: “I just loved driving. We didn’t know anything about racing. We didn’t know that it would turn into something bigger. We didn’t know there was a national and international scene in karting. We didn’t know it took you to cars and all these drivers came up through karting. It was just a fluke thing where we lucked into this opportunity, and I ended up having talent that could take me this far.”
If he hadn’t fallen into a racing career, there’s a good chance Kyle Kirkwood still might have become a professional athlete given his family’s sporting roots. He is an avid surfer with a passion for diving (he once could go 100 feet deep) and fishing. On childhood boating trips in the Atlantic and to the Bahamas, he watched his father and oldest brother chase after world records for catching blue marlin.
“We’re still competitive and want to beat each other in everything to some degree,” Cam said.
The daughter of a Canadian, Peggy Kirkwood, 60, learned to ski at Mont-Tremblant and competed in events around the northeast while growing up in New York.
Cam Kirkwood, 61, was a successful soccer player in high school and at Southern Methodist University as a defender and midfielder. After dabbling with semipro leagues in Texas, he ended his career one rung below what eventually became Major League Soccer when reality dawned and shifted him into real estate.
“Soccer wasn’t so popular in the United States then, and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers salary was like 15 grand,” Cam said. “I was just starting to work with a management company paying me 18, so I could make $3,000 more sitting behind a desk instead of training hard all day.
“But there’s a lot to be said about doing what you love and are passionate about. If there was a mistake in my life, continuing to do what I love and play soccer vs. doing something easier for more money was in hindsight kind of a mistake.”
He steered his sons toward his love of soccer. His oldest, Robert, was progressing toward an MLS career before a career-ending leg injury in a training accident.
Kyle was headed in the same direction, playing nationally with traveling teams. One morning, Cam found himself trying to hustle Kyle between a game and a race. The soccer match started late, and Cam (also a team coach) pulled Kyle before the final whistle to rush to the track, where the go-kart team was upset its driver had missed practice.
“That was the deciding day I had to ask Kyle to consider a choice between soccer and karting,” Cam said. “He chose karting, which was a lot more expensive than cleats, soccer balls and travel, but that’s OK.”
Kyle recalls making his decision while riding to a travel tournament in Boca Raton.
“I was playing at a very high level for my age group, and it came to a point of, ‘You’re really good at both, and this racing thing can turn into something big, and so can the soccer thing,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘I’d rather stay in racing. I love racing.’ My family was very supportive, and I ended up quitting soccer a couple of months later.”
But a heavy influence from Cam’s soccer regimen remained after Kyle left the pitch.
“The intensity of training and practice and practicing right, all those things I definitely pushed on him at a young age,” Cam said. “He didn’t like it at times. We’d be driving back from the kart track, and I’d talk about what went right, what went wrong, and he didn’t like hearing what went wrong. But it got to the point he could handle it.
“A least I had the opportunity to instill in him what it takes to be a successful athlete. It’s a commitment. It’s dedication. You need a straight head. When I (played soccer) in Dallas, there were too many pretty girls around when I was single, and I was distracted a lot. Kyle doesn’t let stuff really distract him.”
In the early years of his racing career, the main role for Kyle’s family was putting his go-kart chassis and a pup tent in the bed of their Silverado and driving him around the country. As Kyle rose through the ranks with wins and scholarships, the financial and travel burdens eased.
“We had to put our faith in the mechanics because I’m not a mechanic or a car or kart guy,” Cam said. “It was all new to me. I had to put my faith in the teams he was with, and he happened to land with all the good ones.
“He had to win championships to move to the next level because open wheel just continues to get more expensive. Thank God he kept winning. He’s had such a wealth of people investing their time and energy into him with a lot of passion. People took an interest and spent a lot more money than I could on him.”
Peggy credits some of Kyle’s success to a deep Christian faith. In contention for a $45,000 karting scholarship as a 13-year-old, Kyle ran out of money for the last race of the Florida Winter Tour. A prayer group meeting prompted Peggy to email family and friends soliciting help. They had the funding within two hours, and Kyle won the tour and scholarship.
In 2021, he won the Indy Lights championship in a wild season finale (going off course twice) to earn a $1 million scholarship and secure his first IndyCar ride.
“If he didn’t finish that race, he was not going to IndyCar, because we don’t have the financial ability for him to be there,” Peggy said. “I’ve said this very frequently that Kyle is where he is by the grace of God. I can’t tell you how many times the door was closing, and God just came through.”
The family essentially sent Kyle to “racing boarding school” of sorts as a teenager. For a while, he lived in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area on a scholarship from NASCAR winner AJ Allmendinger. He took a fully funded ride with the famed Ocala Gran Prix team afterward and spent time abroad while winning races and championships domestically and internationally.
“It was just a revolving circle, and I became very well-versed in how the racing world works,” Kyle said. “I’d join a team, they’d take me under their wing, I’d live with them, and I’d learn as much as I possibly could.
“Still to this day, my family doesn’t know a ton about racing. They know a lot more than they knew back then, but by no means would I even say that my family is a racing family. There’s still a lot we don’t understand. They trusted the people I was around to live in their homes and travel around the country karting for 30-plus weekends a year.”
Peggy saw another side of Kyle while in his element at a racetrack.
“He’d click his fingers and had a different gait,” she said. “It was like a child skipping when they’re happy. When he was young, the racetrack was one of the places where I knew he was safe. Even in our neighborhood, if he went to a neighbor’s house, I’d have him call me when he got there. At the track, he could be in anybody’s (trailer), and I knew he was safe.
“I’ve never worried when he’s at a racetrack. There’s some shady people he grew up with, but they weren’t going to hurt him. They hurt the people who had big bucks.”
The family’s relative lack of wealth, though, did make them a target of those trying to dissuade Kyle from competing against rivals backed by fortunes that stretched well into the eight, nine and sometimes 10 figures.
“So many people told us, ‘He’s never going to make it, just don’t even try, you don’t have the money,’ ” Peggy said. “(Formula One winner) Rubens Barrichello sat us down and said, ‘I didn’t have the money, either. You (tell) those people you’re going to go for it. If you want to come with us, great.’ We had a lot of good advice like that.
“It’s funny that now that Kyle has won the IndyCar race, all those people that said he’s not going to make it are all calling and congratulating us. We appreciate the sentiment, but where were you back when?”
Said Cam: “It’s nice to see a kid make it on his own. It doesn’t happen very often. People used to say to us, ‘You won’t be able to afford $5-10 million a year.’ Well, you’re right, but we believe in him, so we’re going to keep supporting him and see where it goes. And here we are.”
While he mulls what to do with his new house (a fixer-upper just north in Tequesta) and also keeps an apartment in Indy to stay in between races, Kyle plans to remain in Jupiter “because it’s super convenient” to live in the headquarters of his worldwide fan club.
Bratwurst was served at the Kirkwoods’ during their chaotic viewing party for the Long Beach victory. Inside a full house buzzing with people of all ages, a hailstorm in the area resulted in the race broadcast continually interrupted by affiliate weather updates (a problem solved by switching to the Peacock stream, naturally).
As the race wound down with Kyle in the lead, multiple forms of media were employed via the IndyCar scanner app that provides eavesdropping on team radios.
“At one time, we had three different phones on three different drivers around Kyle,” Cam said. “Everyone was reporting to each other about what was being said about strategies and fuel saving. Everyone was on pins and needles.”
“It might have helped him not having us (in Long Beach) with the pressure and emotion and knowing how nervous I get,” Peggy said. “Kyle can see it in my eyes. At the start of a race, I just can’t stop from shaking. There’s nothing I can do to control it. Once they settle down, I can relax.”
There weren’t many moments of relief last year. Kirkwood endured a difficult rookie season of crashes and mechanical woes at AJ Foyt Racing while waiting to make the jump to Andretti Autosport.
“It’s the side we haven’t lived too much over the past 10 years of him not having a good year,” Cam said. “It almost seemed like whatever could imaginably happen wrong happened. That was hard as a parent. To watch him have all that success over all these years and have that type of year was a little depressing.”
While FaceTiming with his son this week (while touring his new home with an architect as they mull renovations that Dad is helping oversee), Cam saw that Kyle’s quietly confident demeanor had returned.
“Long Beach was Kyle to a ‘T’ ” Cam said. “That’s the Kyle we watched win five championships in the junior series. It was really nice to see he was back to the normal, happy Kyle.”
Though his pace vastly has improved this season, the drama remained through the first two races. After getting airborne in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Kirkwood was involved in a controversial pit lane collision with Alexander Rossi at Texas Motor Speedway that triggered a social media firestorm.
“Especially as a mother, I can deal with somebody trying to hurt me,” Peggy said. “But when I read the comments that were coming into Kyle after Texas, I wanted to reach my hand through the phone and grab some of those people by the neck.
“Mama Bear comes out, and you’ll do anything to protect your child. It really comes down to that. Kyle is my son, and he’s achieved great things. But he’s still my son. And there are so many people who loved him before he became successful.
“My goal for him is to become a Scott Dixon or Ryan Hunter-Reay so he can be an icon and just an ambassador for the sport. I can see him doing that.”