Kyle Kirkwood: “It’s a lot easier when you’re out front than when you’re 18th”

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Photo credit: Penske Entertainment | Joe Skibinski

Kyle Kirkwood won his first IndyCar race last Sunday in only his 20th start, and it’s one of the series’ crown jewels. Emulating team boss Michael Andretti, who also took his maiden IndyCar victory in Long Beach, Kirkwood recognised the significance of his achievement.

“Talk about the significance of it? It’s incredible. The next best race to win outside of this one, in my mind, is Indianapolis, right? For someone to have their first win at Indianapolis, I guess Rossi did it, yeah, wow.

“It’s so cool. It’s so cool. Everything has been timed perfectly. I’m so thankful for the opportunity that they’ve given me.

“The car was amazing today. It was fantastic. The feeling I got at the end, I was trying to hold tears back in the car which is something I’ve never really felt before all through the ladder system.

“It almost feels like through my entire open-wheel ladder series career, I always wanted more. I’d win a bunch of races and I’d be like, Okay, I need to get to the next one, keep progressing. Today was the first time I was able to actually soak it in and acknowledge I’ve done something incredible. So it’s really cool.”

Of course Andretti shared some of his experience with the young American, but also his race-engineer Bryan Herta was lauded for his support before and during the race.

“I mean, he [Michael] knew that we could go out there and do it. One thing that’s really nice about Michael, he obviously has so much information that he can share with us, but he knows that he’s hired a ton of good people that will get the job done, with that being Bryan Herta, who has kind of mentored me through this entire weekend.

“He pretty much told me, like, this weekend, if you’re up front, we’ve already done the hard part, the rest of it is pretty easy for you. You’re going to be surprised how easy it is to win a race when you’ve already done the hard work and you’re out front and you’re doing all the right things and you have a fast car.

“He was really the one that kept my head cool.”

The former Indy Lights champion was glad he finally had a result to prove his current form, after suffering some bad luck in the opening two rounds on St. Petersburg and Texas.

“It’s kind of shook the monkey off my back a little bit ’cause we had a spell of bad luck there. All of it was out of our control. At St. Pete we were extremely fast, running in sixth. We got caught up in someone else’s incident. Texas we weren’t really that fast, but we got the car in a really good window, ultimately we weren’t able to finish the race from a mechanical, which was super unfortunate. We had the pace.

“This weekend we had the pace and were able to execute. I think that was possible at the past two events. Hopefully this is now just creating some momentum that will carry through the rest of the season.”

And while everything looked like smooth sailing up front, there were still some clenched buttocks towards the end, given how the fuel strategy played out.

“A little bit nerve-wracking there at the end to be honest because we thought we had a fuel number we needed to hit, all of a sudden it changed for about a lap. I knew Romain had a ton of push to pass left. I don’t know how much he saved fuel, how much he could use.”

But other than that he found that leading the race is easier than scrambling in the lower midfield, like he has done so much last year.

“I tell you what, it’s a lot easier when you’re out front than when you’re 18th. I can tell you that much.

“Yeah, you control everything from the front, which is something that I was used to. Not to sound cocky or anything, but I was very used to that in the Road to Indy, leading races, controlling pace, understanding what I needed to do to save tires, the car in general, make sure I could hit all my marks lap after lap after lap, be consistent.

“When you’re in the middle, you’re pushing non-stop, trying to keep people from passing you, dive bombing you. You’re trying to cycle forward, get passes done.

“Yeah, it is more comfortable for me being out front. It was one of the least nerve-wracking I’ve ever had in INDYCAR, if I’m being honest.”

Unfortunately his family and friends were not around to celebrate his victory with him. However, it also has some advantages, Kirkwood said.

“It’s easy like that, to be honest. You don’t have anything to deal with between practices and everything. You’re fully focused. I obviously do really good in those situations.

“My family comes to a lot of races. The West Coast is very expensive for them to come out to. They weren’t able to make it out to this one.

“I’m disappointed for them to miss my first win, of course, but I know they’re cheering me back home.

“I’ll call them after all this, once I get done with media and whatnot. But once I get home, I’m sure they’re going to be ecstatic and love to see me after this moment.”

After Long Beach Kirkwood is fifth in the standings, leading the Andretti squad going into the Alabama Grand Prix.