Kyle Kirkwood’s first outing behind the wheel of an IndyCar delivered everything the new Indy Lights champion was hoping to experience. The step up to Andretti Autosport’s No. 26 Honda on Wednesday at Sebring’s short course was a meaningful one for 22-year-old, and while it marked what should be the first of many days for Kirkwood in the NTT IndyCar Series, it did not come with a sense of shock at the car’s performance.
As one might expect from someone who won the USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and Indy Lights titles on his first attempts, Kirkwood felt right at home with all the extra power and grip in the car Colton Herta used to win three races in 2021.
“The car does everything phenomenally, but it wasn’t overwhelming,” Kirkwood told RACER. “My fourth timed lap in the car was only 0.9s off of my quickest lap all day, so it was like I got in the car and it was comfortable to go quick right away. So that was not an issue. It was it was incredible to drive. Best car I’ve ever driven, by far. But not overwhelming.”
Kirkwood shared the day with fellow Andretti Indy Lights driver Devlin DeFrancesco, who piloted the No. 29 Honda with Ray Gosselin serving as his race engineer. On the No. 26 Honda, Kirkwood and Herta’s race engineer Nathan O’Rourke had approximately 50 laps together as rain kept both drivers in the pits for most of the day.
When he was able to run, Kirkwood took note of all the differences to the Dallara IL15 Indy Lights car he drove to 10 wins last season and shared his observations.
“It’s actually not that much different from a Lights car,” he said. “The biggest thing is the Firestone tires and how they react. I didn’t even notice the aeroscreen, so that was good. The braking efficiency is not that much not that much greater than the Lights car, and the pressure that is needed is about the same. The damper development that IndyCar has, since teams are open to be being able to do what they want, is the biggest technology change that I felt. The car absorbs everything so nicely.
“When I drove Lights cars at Sebring, you go into Turn 3, touch the inside curb, and you’re going for a ride. In the IndyCar, you actually can clip the curb and it doesn’t do anything; you don’t even notice it. The Honda power was really good, but overall, the IndyCar reacts very similarly to the Lights car.”
Any IndyCar has more items at a driver’s disposal on the steering wheel, which requires steady use and monitoring to extract the best performance from the machine. Adapting to such things can take a bit of time for most Lights drivers, but Kirkwood credited his time in IMSA with the Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 team for overcoming that learning curve.
“I think that’s where some of my IMSA GTD experience came into play, because that’s all stuff I’ve already been used to with the electronics and technology built into the Lexus,” he said. “And I’ve done a lot of pit stops in IMSA, but we pit stop practice today and I felt super comfortable doing so in what would be considered the tightest pit box that we that we would have this year – like at Mid-Ohio – and so mimicking that, I felt pretty good with doing those stops.”
Kirkwood had Bryan Herta on the timing stand to oversee his maiden IndyCar test.
“Bryan gave me the most knowledge of getting into the car and how to approach the test,” he said. “Last night, he said to both Devlin and I, ‘I could tell you to just go out there and take it easy and get used to everything, but honestly, we don’t want to see that you need to go out there and waste time going slow and easing your way into things. So go out there and push right away. That’s what we expect you guys to do.’ And that was perfect advice, so that’s what I did.”
Kirkwood is expected to get another Andretti IndyCar run later this month.