Starting at the Bottom

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I tend to get myself in trouble when I discuss things I’m not fully versed on. I’m venturing into that territory today my commenting on this past year’s Indy Lights champion. Most readers here know that I don’t follow Indy Lights very closely, or any other ladder series for that matter. I don’t follow minor league baseball, either. I wait until they get to the big leagues before I learn about them. I only have so much room in my brain. I don’t want to clutter it up with the names of drivers who may never drive in IndyCar.

That being said – I am very much aware that the current Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kirkwood, is a very special talent. I don’t know that I’ve heard more about an up and coming rookie (or rookies), since the end of the 2018 season, when Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward started the final race of the season for Harding Racing. I would say that both of those drivers have fulfilled the lofty expectations that were placed on them coming out of Indy Lights.

Kirkwood spent the championship 2021 Indy Lights season with Andretti Autosport. He won ten of twenty races, and finished second in four more. Many people that know a lot more than I do, say that Kirkwood is about as close to a sure thing as there is in racing.

Unfortunately for Kirkwood, he got caught up in Michael Andretti’s failed attempt to but Sauber in Formula One. Had Andretti been successful, Colton Herta would have been moving on from IndyCar to fulfill his dream of driving in F1. Kirkwood was the obvious choice to fill the vacated seat of Herta in the No. 26 car to join Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean and presumably fellow rookie Devlin DeFrancesco (in the No. 29 car, formerly driven by James Hinchcliffe). Now that the deal has fallen through, Kirkwood appears to be the odd man out at Andretti Autosport.

Michael Andretti allegedly held an option for Kirkwood’s IndyCar rights. But when the clock struck midnight Sunday night and the calendar flipped over to November 1, Kirkwood became what is essentially an unrestricted free-agent that is allowed to talk with any IndyCar team about his 2022 plans. He also has the $1.3 million earmarked for any team that hires him.

Marshall Pruett reported in a Monday article that Kirkwood has become a strong candidate to drive the No. 14 for AJ Foyt Enterprises in 2022.

My, how things can change in a short period of time!

No offense to the fine folks at AJ Foyt’s team, but it’s a pretty dramatic drop from one of the Big Four (now that we have to include McLaren) to Foyt’s team, which I would have to rank as a third tier team. Leaving Juncos Hollinger Racing out of the discussion, about the only fulltime team I would rank lower than Foyt would be Carlin – and we don’t know if they will even be back next season.

I hate saying that because I am a lifelong fan of AJ Foyt, and I also think that Larry Foyt has things headed in the right direction. Of course, we’ve been saying that for years and the team continues to be a bottom-dweller. If ROCKiT returns for 2022 and actually funds a third car for Tateana Calderon as well as funding the No. 14 for Kirkwood, maybe they can turn things around.

I really hate to see a talent like Kirkwood toll in the back of the pack, in a car that has little chance of being anything but a backmarker. While I don’t necessarily believe that a rookie needs to be given the best equipment on the grid, they need to be given a chance to learn more than just staying out of everyone’s way. Then again, it’s not always a bad thing to be starting at the bottom. There’s no where to go but up.

Given some of the bad luck he was dealt this past season, I thought Sébastien Bourdais was a miracle worker to get the No. 14 car to a sixteenth-place finish in the standings. No matter how talented he is, I don’t see Kirkwood outperforming Bourdais in that car. If Foyt runs three cars in 2022, as Pruett is speculating – the team will be led by grizzled veteran Dalton Kellett, who will be driving in only his second fulltime season with the team. If Kirkwood performs in that scenario, eyes will be opened and heads will be turned.

Ideally, I would have liked to have seen Kirkwood go to a team that did have a veteran winning driver. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any teams like that who still has vacancies. It sounds like there may have been interest at one time from Arrow McLaren SP for a third car, but that seems to have cooled. Michael Andretti’s luxury of holding the option on Kirkwood worked against the Indy Lights champion. Could Andretti Autosport run five fulltime cars, in addition to the two fulltime Meyer Shank cars they are affiliated with? That would be tough to do.

With Dale Coyne looking like he could be set with Takuma Sato and David Malukas, it looks like AJ Foyt Enterprises may be the only available landing spot for Kirkwood. He’d better take what he can get. As usual, there are more available drivers than available rides. A fulltime IndyCar seat is a valuable commodity, no matter the perceived level of the team. Who knows? If Kirkwood can win in a Foyt car, the sky is the limit for 2023. Takuma Sato was the last driver to win in a Foyt car, when he won Long Beach in 2013. He parlayed that one win into two choice rides that led to five more IndyCar wins including to wins in the Indianapolis 500.

If Kyle Kirkwood is as much of a sure thing that people say he is, a year at Foyt may not be such a bad thing. If he can win there, he can probably win anywhere. If nothing else, it will certainly be a humbling experience.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Starting at the Bottom”

  1. Business is business but would Mario if team owner have signed Devlin DeFrancesco over Kirkwood. Maybe that’s why Michael is the owner however with all due respect to Devlin Kirkwood should be in that car for 2022 in my opinion.
    Imagine Rossi, Grosjean, Herta and Kirkwood. Wow.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    I like you do not follow the lights series very closely. I thought Andretti was very high on this kid, and would find a way to run a fifth car for him.. I have truly thought Foyt team would turn around the past couple years. That hasn’t happened. If he goes to Foyt I can only hope there would be winning veteran driver there to lean on. I still hold out hope for Foyt team and this young driver.

  3. Vic Lovisa Says:

    Learn from Will Power in 2009. Stay with a good team even if it means a partial schedule. If you’re good, they’ll eventually make full time room for you. I think Kirkwood should run his three guaranteed races in 2022, patiently wait till Rossi goes to Penske in 2023, then slide into his vacated #27 car at AA full time.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is awful frustrating that teams are not in a position to fight over signing Kirkwood, given how thoroughly he has cleaned up at every single stop in the ladder.

    Even at Foyt, though, Kirkwood would at least have an opportunity to show folks he can outperform the expectations of his equipment. That’s probably better than a part-time role like Sage Karam and Spencer Pigot got in their debut seasons (though Pigot, at least, got a bit of a chance before washing out). Leist and Hawksworth might disagree…

  5. well, Jorge Soler played for the Tennesse Smokies in the minors
    and now he is the MVP of the World Series after cycling through
    the Cubs, Royals, and the Braves. sometimes it takes some time.

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