Kyle Kirkwood wasted no time mulling his future last summer when it was time to chart his course. He acted swiftly and convincingly, re-signing with Andretti Global when the offer came.
Kirkwood said he never considered exploring free agency even as others in his position might have. Rather, the most promising young American driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES wanted to make a commitment to the organization that helped get him there.
Andretti Global has felt like Kirkwood’s racing home even before they partnered to win the INDY NXT by Firestone championship in 2021. Kirkwood said it was important to show that an NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie season with AJ Foyt Racing in ’22 hadn’t swayed his loyalty.
“I’ve known (Andretti Global officials) and some of the guys over there for many years, and the fact that I was so comfortable jumping into their INDYCAR (program in ‘23) and kind of doing very well from the start just made me feel like this is my home,” he said. “This is where I want to be. I don’t want anyone to question that.
“At this point in time, this is the perfect place.”
Kirkwood’s new contract with Michael Andretti’s organization was announced in late September, but their bond had been cemented months earlier. Kirkwood won the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of his career in April in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, then backed it up with an August win in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville. He won the Long Beach race nearly wire-to-wire from the pole and led a race-high 34 of 80 laps in Nashville.
Despite being a first-year member of Andretti Global’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES program, Kirkwood finished only one position and four points behind his more experienced teammate, Colton Herta, and he finished 56 points ahead of teammate Romain Grosjean, whose career includes 10 seasons in Formula One.
Kirkwood also gave the Indianapolis-based organization its only two series race wins of 2023. He was one of only four series drivers to score multiple race wins, and he finished eighth in laps led, with 88.
It’s fair to assume Kirkwood would have had job options if he had explored them. He was the star of the junior series, winning five consecutive series titles on the way to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. His INDY NXT by Firestone championship in 2021 featured 10 wins in 20 races. In the final 18, he finished first or second 15 times, including nine in succession late in the year.
Kirkwood might have joined Andretti Global for his rookie season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES had there been a seat for him. But occupying the four full-time seats were Herta, Grosjean, Alexander Rossi and Devlin DeFrancesco. So, Kirkwood went to A.J. Foyt’s team for a year to gain experience.
For 2023, Rossi moved to Arrow McLaren, opening a path back for Kirkwood. He not only took the opportunity, he refused to relinquish it. Now, he has a future with the organization to go with his past and present.
“I have had a lot of support from Andretti over the years, coming from (INDY NXT) where they helped me out there,” the 25-year-old Floridian said. “We were ultimately able to go get a championship and 10 wins in our one year (in that series) together, and they’ve helped me even before that.”
Kirkwood said the bond with INDYCAR SERIES race winner Bryan Herta, who serves as his strategist on race weekends, is another plus for continuing the partnership.
While Kirkwood’s two NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins have come on street circuits, he had one of the fastest cars late in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and was in 10th place when he couldn’t avoid hitting Felix Rosenqvist’s damaged car in Turn 2 of Lap 185.
For this year, Kirkwood wants better luck and improved consistency. Regarding the latter, his average finish last year was 13.1, which was nearly two positions lower than where he usually started races. Bettering that is the next step in this career that seems on the rise.
“Obviously, that’s a goal of mine,” Kirkwood said of higher finishes on a more regular basis. “I look at that. I see that my two top-five (finishes) were (wins). That’s not what I’m trying to do, of course.
“But really it’s just kind of now (gaining) experience for me, understanding some strategy stuff that I feel like I’m figuring out now.”
Figuring that out with his group is part of that, but at least Kirkwood knows them, and they know him. And, the rest of the paddock knows that Kirkwood and Andretti Global are together for at least the foreseeable future. He has made that point perfectly clear.
The 17-race 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Sunday, March 10.