Jeremy Milless has a knack for winning NTT IndyCar Series races with young American drivers.
The latest addition to the race engineer’s record is 22-year-old Kyle Kirkwood from Florida who drove the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda to victory in Long Beach, and prior to the 2021 Indy Lights champion stepping into the car, Milless and Alexander Rossi combined to earn seven of the Californian’s last eight victories and 27 of his 28 podiums.
Moving back to 2015, the trend got its start at CFH Racing — the team we know today as Ed Carpenter Racing — when Milless went to victory lane at Barber Motorsports Park with first-time winner Josef Newgarden, who would go on to secure his second and third wins with Milless at CFH/ECR before Team Penske hired the Tennessean in 2017.
Given his history with Rossi and Newgarden — the 2012 Indy Lights champion — reaching the pinnacle of IndyCar success with Kirkwood should come as no surprise, and in an exchange early in the weekend at Long Beach, Milless didn’t waver when he predicted his new driver would deliver a breakthrough win on Sunday.
As he’s done for more than 20 years in motor racing, connecting with drivers and pit crews has come easily for the outgoing Milless, but is there a special talent he uses to bond with the Kirkwoods and Newgardens in the formative stages of their careers?
“I’m immature, so I can relate to the younger children,” he told RACER with a laugh. “I take the approach that they’ve made it this far, so they obviously are pretty damn good at what they do. So I just listen to what they say and see how that goes.”
The irreverent IndyCar mechanic-turned-engineer likes to keep things light with his drivers and to that end, Milless tends to be received less like the head coach barking orders at his star quarterback, and more like a goofy older brother.
“One thing I always try and do is if they’re doing something wrong, I always say ‘we’ need to work on this,” he explains. “I always make sure it’s said like that, and I would hope it would be done that way if it’s the other way around. Maybe that makes them less angry.”
Milless received Kirkwood with one year of experience gained from the fluctuating A.J. Foyt Racing team. Experience was certainly earned during the up-and-down season, but it wasn’t clear whether Kirkwood made any significant advancements as a driver. Three races into his second season, he sent a message that a new threat exists in IndyCar.
“I would say he’s about where Josef was in Year 3,” Milless said. “Honestly, he’s a bit more mature and has a little more racecraft. His feedback is really good. The biggest thing is all drivers have feedback, right? But it’s the ones that tell you, ‘I think the car needs this to fix it,’ and they go faster. And so far, I’d say he’s pretty a pretty big hit on things like that. We hit it right off at the Thermal [pre-season] test, he told me a couple things to do to make the car better for him, and I was like, ‘That sounds like we need to put the Barber setup on and it’s gonna work. And it did.”
Leaving Long Beach, Kirkwood’s race engineer has no questions as to whether the IndyCar sophomore can back up his breakthrough win with more victories in 2023.
“Confidence is pretty high right now,” he added. “I wouldn’t have been shocked if we won the first race.”