Why the pressure is off for IndyCar's top-billed rookie in 2022

AJ Foyt Racing has replaced a champion veteran with a champion rookie for 2022. His new team has struggled for results in recent years, but Kyle Kirkwood knows he is under no pressure this year and may yet cause those who chose to ignore his talents to regret their more conservative driver choices

Why the pressure is off for IndyCar's top-billed rookie in 2022

The most convincing, most complete driver we’ve seen in US open-wheel’s junior series over the past dozen years will begin his IndyCar career in 2022 with AJ Foyt Racing, the full-time team that has struggled most in recent seasons. It didn’t have to be that way. Except for Kyle Kirkwood, it did.

There just weren’t many options for him, at least not in IndyCar. That seems incredible considering Kirkwood amassed 31 wins in 50 races across the three Road to Indy [RTI] formulae (USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights), won the championship in all three (first driver to do so), and has a bag of $1.25m as a scholarship prize from the RTI.

Had Kirkwood’s previous team owner Michael Andretti managed to buy into the Alfa Romeo Sauber Formula 1 team and found a way to lever Colton Herta into it, then Kirkwood would have been slotted into the #26 Andretti Autosport IndyCar that Herta had vacated. But that deal famously fell apart at the eleventh hour.

Consequently, Andretti’s only rookie in the 2022 IndyCar season will be the extremely well-funded Devlin DeFrancesco, a driver who scored only two podium finishes last year in Indy Lights. He’s not a bad pedaller – he scored a couple of wins in Indy Pro, tested well in Andretti’s IndyCar at Sebring and Barber Motorsports Park, and last weekend held up his end in DragonSpeed’s ORECA that won the LMP2 class in the Daytona 24 Hours. But he’s no Kirkwood.

Andretti shouldn’t take all the flak for failing to graduate his latest champion to the top of US open-wheel's ladder. There were several other teams that had vacancies or could have created them – and it would hardly have been thinking outside the box to sign a driver with Kirkwood’s resume. But their owners chose to go the less inspired route. And so, in the year ahead, it may be difficult to remain objective and not secretly hope that Kirkwood and new team principal Larry Foyt can occasionally beat their more prominent but more prosaic opponents.

Three tests with Andretti Autosport gave Kirkwood a head-start on his IndyCar career, but Michael Andretti couldn't make room for him in 2022

Three tests with Andretti Autosport gave Kirkwood a head-start on his IndyCar career, but Michael Andretti couldn't make room for him in 2022

Photo by: Chris Owens

To his great credit, 23-year-old Kirkwood has expressed neither bitterness nor bewilderment over the apparently widespread apathy for his achievements. Instead he’s come across as simply enthusiastic about the season ahead. The Foyt squad, he says, has welcomed him as family, shared all data they can to best prepare him and, as he observes, the sparseness of good results from the team since 2017 “does take pressure off of me”.

The biggest difficulty for Kirkwood will likely be gauging his personal progress. One of his team-mates (for road and street courses) will be fellow rookie Tatiana Calderon, whose talent in large open-wheel cars is at best unproven, while his full-time partner Dalton Kellett's talent in large open-wheel cars is proven but is merely moderate.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what we can do,” Kirkwood tells Autosport. “I can’t really say, ‘I need to finish this high in the races, I need to finish this high in the championship’. Everyone knows IndyCar is a tough series and understands that AJ Foyt Racing is trying to rebuild, so as a rookie I’ve just got to throw myself into the work and do everything I can to move us forward.

"I don’t know if it’s because I’m now better physically prepared for IndyCar, but I can tell you that when I tested for Andretti at Sebring last year, I was completely beat, but with Foyt it wasn’t even a consideration" Kyle Kirkwood

“The main goal, personally, is to learn as much as possible as quick as possible, approach the season with a positive mindset and help create setups that suit me, suit Tatiana and Dalton as well, and be an asset to the team. As long as we can check all the boxes, finish races cleanly and race smart, I think everything will pan out and we’ll do fine.

“I don’t have a threshold that I need to reach in order to be happy: it’s about taking it weekend by weekend and when I leave the track each day, know that I have helped the team and given everything I can in the engineering trailer and on the track.”

Whatever the giant question marks that others see hanging over the Foyt team – just two podiums and five other top-five finishes over the course of the last five seasons – Kirkwood’s comment regarding his “positive mindset” suggests he’ll attack his rookie IndyCar season with the same vigour he’d have shown if dropped into a Ganassi car. And his upbeat attitude is not just down to youthful zeal or wilful obliviousness to circumstance; there’s real substance to his belief that the Foyt team is onto something.

Last autumn, Kirkwood tested for Andretti Autosport – in Herta’s hands, a pole-setting and race-winning car on street and road courses – yet after completing one day of testing with his new colleagues at Sebring in January, he believes the Foyt car compares favourably.

Kirkwood believes the Foyt team's performance in testing at Sebring didn't differ too much from his experience with Andretti last year

Kirkwood believes the Foyt team's performance in testing at Sebring didn't differ too much from his experience with Andretti last year

Photo by: A.J. Foyt Racing

“By the end of the test, I didn’t think our car was much different than the car I drove in the fall,” he says. “It seems pretty good. There have been good things happening within the team, new damper developments that I think can expedite the process of getting myself and the car in the window for the season ahead. I’ve got my fingers crossed right now.

“There are a couple of differences compared with the Andretti car that I think we can tune, but only if we want to use that as a baseline. We’re on our own programme and I don’t think we really need to base ourselves off anyone else.

“One big positive I noticed is a difference in the car’s behaviour. I don’t know if it’s because I’m now better physically prepared for IndyCar, but I can tell you that when I tested for Andretti at Sebring last year, I was completely beat, but with Foyt it wasn’t even a consideration. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s physical, or maybe we’ve found something on this car to help reduce driver fatigue that would obviously hinder a driver’s performance in a race.

“If we were to compare apples to apples from my Sebring test with Andretti to my Sebring test with AJ Foyt Racing, I think you’d find we were pretty much at the same lap time. The Chevy’s power delivery is a little different [causing him to spin harmlessly the first time he put the hammer down on full-rich fuel mixture] and I’m guessing the track conditions weren’t identical so it’s hard to be completely accurate in comparing the two tests, but I don’t see any reason why we should be worried or even discouraged. I think our car is good.”

It’s not like learning the intricacies of an IndyCar are Kirkwood’s only hurdle in 2022. Like most rookies, he’s going to encounter courses he’s never seen before, despite racing in all three of the RTI series. The ovals of Indy, Texas and Iowa and the streets of Long Beach and Nashville will all be alien to him, but that’s not an aspect of being a novice that intimidates him.

“I’ve never had an issue at a new track, never had that thought in my mind,” he says, “and that’s important when we have fewer practice sessions, and we don’t have many tyre sets to use up.”

Speaking of tyres, Kirkwood has grown used to the durable hard compounds that Cooper supplies to the three RTI series, and he’s well aware that Firestones behave rather differently. He’ll have to swiftly acquire the feel necessary to extract the best from the softer ‘reds’ used both in qualifying and at least one stint of the race, and he’s already discovering the vagaries of the harder primary compound.

Gateway was one of only two top-five finishes scored in 2021, both by Bourdais who has moved to IMSA this year

Gateway was one of only two top-five finishes scored in 2021, both by Bourdais who has moved to IMSA this year

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

“Understanding the tyre is super-important in IndyCar,” he says. “The Cooper’s spring rate seems super-high and the way the tyre behaves is that as it builds pressure, it builds grip. The Firestone builds grip quick but it doesn’t build pressure that quick, so it’s hard to understand where your ride-heights are at or where they should be.

“In my first two tests, I smoked two sets of tyres from just not knowing that the pressures and ride height weren’t where we needed them to be for a hot lap. So I’ve gotten into the rhythm of making sure someone on the timing stand lets me know where my pressures are, relative to where we want them to be.”

It’s all part of the development curve for IndyCar newbies, but Kirkwood is already conquering some other aspects of that process thanks to his IMSA sportscar outings. Last weekend saw him make his seventh start as an endurance ‘extra’ in a Vasser Sullivan Racing Lexus, going on to score fourth in the GTD Pro class with Jack Hawksworth and Ben Barnicoat.

"Listening to Kyle’s feedback, watching him drive the car, I could tell it wasn’t a case of the car driving him, which you sometimes get with rookies. He was on top of it, really knew what he was looking for, and was very articulate in his feedback. It just seemed to come quite easy to him" Larry Foyt

“I’d always wanted to race a sportscar,” says Kirkwood who took class pole for the Watkins Glen Six Hours last year, “so I was genuinely ecstatic to get the ride with Lexus and Vasser Sullivan in 2020. And I think it’s brought a lot of advantages to me as a driver.

“What you don’t experience in junior formulas is pitstops, tyre-saving and fuel-saving. In my test with Foyt, it was the first time I’d tried fuel-saving in an open-wheel car and after five laps, the team said I’d completely nailed it! They gave me a number, and I hit it.

“It’s all about lift and coast but still carrying a lot of speed into the corner. Finding your brake point after you coast is tough for someone who’s completely new to it, but I’ve done that for hours and hours in the Lexus in IMSA, so it’s become normal. So the sportscar experience will be a huge help for me as an IndyCar rookie.”

We can assume that AJ Foyt Racing is going to miss the presence of the deeply experienced and still very quick Sebastien Bourdais, and we can all dream about how the four-time Champ Car title-winner and Kirkwood might have worked together. But Larry Foyt is confident that Kirkwood is going to shine anyway.

Fourth place in GTD Pro class at Daytona in VSR Lexus was a strong start to Kirkwood's year

Fourth place in GTD Pro class at Daytona in VSR Lexus was a strong start to Kirkwood's year

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“Kyle’s super-accomplished, so we did go into that first test expecting him to be good,” says Foyt, “and yes, he’d had two-and-a-half days of testing an IndyCar. But even taking that into account, he’s super-impressive. His approach, his calmness, what he understood already, meant that the progress we made from where we started to where we got to in the space of one test day was great.

“Now, we all know that two or three tenths can move you from top 20 to top 10 and we didn’t have a benchmark there. But listening to Kyle’s feedback, watching him drive the car, I could tell it wasn’t a case of the car driving him, which you sometimes get with rookies.

“He was on top of it, really knew what he was looking for, and was very articulate in his feedback. It just seemed to come quite easy to him, and so we’re excited to have a rookie who’s already mature beyond his years.”

And Foyt doesn’t take it as an insult that Kirkwood says there’s not as much pressure on him at his new gig as there would be at teams with better recent results.

“That’s actually kinda how we sold it to him!” he chuckles. “Kyle did have other things he could have done. But I told him, ‘This is a chance for you to have a low-pressure situation, if it doesn’t go well it’s going to be blamed on the team, and if it goes well we all win. So let’s do this together, try and surprise people and get you some good experience.’

“Let’s be honest, Kyle knows that even if we struggle, he’ll still have other options at the end of the year. But we genuinely believe together we can go and prove some of our naysayers wrong, so everyone will benefit.

“Working with a proven champion like Sebastien was also a benefit. He’s still quick and also had the experience to highlight areas where we needed to make gains. But when he got the sportscar offer [full-time in IMSA with Chip Ganassi Racing's Cadillac] we understood why he went for it, and we were wondering who could replace him. But I think it really boosted our morale and excited us to be able to get such an accomplished rookie as Kyle. He’s been on my radar for years because he’s such a special talent.”

Team boss Larry Foyt has high hopes for his new signing, who comes with an impeccable track record

Team boss Larry Foyt has high hopes for his new signing, who comes with an impeccable track record

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The Foyt-Kirkwood contract is only for one year, but the driver market isn’t going to feature the seismic upheavals we saw in 2021, so Kirkwood may end up staying a second season with the Texas-based squad. The prospect doesn’t daunt him.

“Who knows how it’s going to go? The season hasn’t started yet and I don’t know what other options I might have,” says Kirkwood. “But if our trajectory at AJ Foyt Racing is good, if we’re building up as a team and I can truly see that our efforts are paying off, then I’ll be happy.”

Many onlookers will feel happy, too. Happy and vindicated, knowing that Kirkwood has brought enlightenment to those who spurned the chance to sign him.

Kirkwood will run the full season for Foyt alongside Kellet, with Calderon entered part-time in a third car

Kirkwood will run the full season for Foyt alongside Kellet, with Calderon entered part-time in a third car

Photo by: A.J. Foyt Racing

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