A Good Position to be In

We learned last week what had been rumored for a while – Kyle Kirkwood will run the entire 2022 IndyCar season with AJ Foyt Enterprises in the famous No. 14. I stated my reservations about this move when it was first rumored, but now that it’s done – I don’t blame Kirkwood a bit.

Now the question becomes the age old question in racing, sports and even society – will this move cause all boats to rise, or will the lowest common denominator bring everything else down?

The problem in racing is that no matter how talented a driver is, you can make a sled go just so fast. That’s why Formula One is so tough. There are only about four to six cars on the grid that are actually capable of winning. All other cars are destined to be backmarkers.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, there are many more teams capable of winning on any given race weekend. Foyt is usually not one of them, and it’s not due to the drivers they’ve hired. They’ve had some talented drivers in their cars recently, although drivers like Paul Tracy and Tony Kanaan were nearing the end of their storied careers. They also had drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato, who both went on to glory elsewhere.

Just last year, they had Sébastien Bourdais in the No. 14. Bourdais is forty-two, but is still very competitive. He was able to squeeze out a couple of wins at Dale Coyne in not-so-great equipment, but could not work the same magic at Foyt. The best he could do was two fifth-place finishes, on his way to a sixteenth place finish in the points.

From what I’ve heard, Kirkwood is predicted to be the entire package. Some say he is considered a more complete driver that Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward were when they came out of Indy Lights after the 2018 season. I’m not qualified to make such a judgment myself, since I don’t really follow the Road to Indy – but people whose opinions I value, say that he is the real deal. That’s good enough for me.

Will his talent raise the bar at Foyt? Probably not. No matter how great Kirkwood is, he will still be a rookie. If a driver of the caliber of Sébastien Bourdais can’t raise the boats at Foyt, why would I think a rookie can?

The other side of the coin asks; will the equipment at Foyt be a detriment to Kirkwood’s future? Some say a losing atmosphere can have a lasting effect on a young rookie.

First of all, there is a big difference in racing between losing races and a losing atmosphere. Team Penske has one of the winningest teams in racing. Last year, they won three of sixteen races. That’s not a high winning percentage, but I wouldn’t say a losing atmosphere exists there. I don’t think it exists at Foyt either – they just don’t win races very often.

Larry Foyt is trying to build something at Foyt, something that hasn’t existed in decades. But don’t call them losers, just because they are perennial backmarkers. If there was a losing culture at Foyt; Bourdais, Kanaan, Tracy, Hunter-Reay, Sato and others never would have gone there. Unless a driver directly incurred the wrath of AJ Foyt (Darren Manning and Eliseo Salazar, for example); most drivers speak fondly of their time at Foyt. I’m not sure that Carlos Muñoz or Conor Day will speak kindly of their 2017 season there, but for the most part – I gather that the team fosters a nice environment.

So while I seriously doubt that Kyle Kirkwood will make all boats float at Foyt in 2022, I don’t think his time there will be detrimental to his career. I suspect that Andretti Autosport will bring him back into the fold as soon as they can, whether they make a driver change for 2023 or the expand to five fulltime cars. But as of November 1, that will be Kirkwood’s decision alone – not Michael Andretti’s. He could go elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of weeks, since I last wrote about it. In the long run, this may be the best thing for Kirkwood. There will be no false expectations placed on him at Foyt, like Scott McLaughlin had hoisted upon his shoulders this past year. No one expects anything higher than mid-pack for Kirkwood at Foyt. Based on last year’s results, that will probably be considered a huge success.

Kirkwood can use all of next season to learn these heavier cars, these more powerful engines and even more fundamental things like dealing with pit stops. 2022 can be a season-long testing session for Kirkwood to learn all of the nuances to driving an Indy car. If he learns to get speed out of the usually slower car at Foyt, imagine what he’ll be able to do with a car set up properly.

Most of you know that I was not in favor of Kirkwood going to Foyt. But his options dried up. Even two weeks ago, I said that a season at Foyt was better than a season sitting on the sidelines. The more I think about this, this is a good Plan B. He’ll be in the game, with no lofty expectations. If he happens to find speed in a Foyt car next season, that just increases his options for 2023. It’s a good position to be in.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “A Good Position to be In”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Again George, I think your spot on with this observation.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I very much agree as well. A good parallel for Kirkwood at Foyt may be Josef Newgarden’s time at Sarah Fisher’s team Expectations were modest and Newgarden wound up proving his worth by wildly outperforming those expectations (though it took a year).

    I’m excited to see what Kirkwood can do.

  3. I’m excited to see what Kyle Kirkwood can do, while I do not question the Foyt teams commitment to success in Indycar the facts are clear Foyt is the weakest team to run the regular schedule on the grid. A driver has to start from somewhere but…
    RLL, ECR, Coyne etc.
    Are all teams where he would have a better chance at success, but sadly did not have a seat available.

  4. I’ve just read that KK is rumoured to have turned down a seat at McLaren Indycar team…..

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