Indy Lights champion Kirkwood was confirmed this morning as the #14 AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet driver for 2022, and Larry Foyt believes this will help his team lure staff to bolster the engineering line-up.
Kirkwood has proven himself by becoming the first driver to win the championship at each level of the Road To Indy, accumulating a grand total of 31 wins across USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and most recently Indy Lights.
“It’s really exciting,” said Foyt. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve got to do – put the right engineering group around him, so that’s what we’re working on right now, and obviously when you have a guy that’s had the results he’s had and is young and enthusiastic and excited to get in the racecar, people want to work with him. It’s definitely a help on the team side to help you get the best people.”
One-year deals with rookies have proven to be a liability for a similarly “small” IndyCar teams, with Dale Coyne Racing bringing Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean into the series, only to see them taken by Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport respectively.
Asked by Autosport why he had gone for just a single-season term with Kirkwood, Foyt replied: “Well, I just think when we discussed things, that was just where it needed to be. Obviously we’d love to lock him up, but we as a team need to prove [ourselves].
“And then also we’ll see how he gets on in the IndyCar, but maybe we can at that point. But at the time to get the deal done, one year was where it was at, and that’s what we did.”
Should the combination prove promising and they wish to stay together, Foyt believes Kirkwood would be an asset to the team heading into the 2023 era of new engines with hybrid units.
“I don’t think you win the championships he’s done without being a good setup driver,” he said. “I think just from the little bit of talking to him and talking about some of the testing he’s already done, he’s got a great feel for the car and the tire. I think his feedback is going to be great.
“This year all of our baseline setups, we weren’t terribly far off, especially on road and street courses. We were fighting for the top half in qualifying. A tenth or two and that puts you right up in the top 10.
“I think our baselines where we’ll be starting will be OK for him, and then from there he can hopefully lead us in the right direction.
“What we’ve seen is if you get the right driver-engineer combination together in IndyCar you can be successful even if you are a smaller team and don’t have quite the resources. I mean, obviously right now in IndyCar, being a mostly spec-type series, the damper department is where you’ve got to put a lot of resources, and we got a little bit behind on that, but we’ve been working hard to really update and make that department a priority, and we’re putting a lot of our resources into that for next year.
“We have some exciting things coming down the road. I think it’s going to pay dividends, and we’re excited to see what that does on track. A couple tenths in this series is huge. I think if you can find a little bit of that elusive grip that the drivers always want, give them that feeling they’re looking for, you can be right up front in IndyCar.”
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For his part, Kirkwood believes his dearth of experience will not be too much of a handicap.
“Like I mentioned in the past, every season that I’ve come into a new series, I haven’t really had a teammate to base things off of, except for this past year in Indy Lights where I had Devlin DeFrancesco, Danial Frost and Robert Megennis who had done a year in Indy Lights previously. So I’m pretty used to not really having a mentor on a team or having somebody to base things off of. It’s a pretty comfortable atmosphere for me.”
The 23-year-old from Jupiter, FL., who ran three tests in an Andretti Autosport-Honda, at Sebring Raceway’s short course, Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis road course, confirmed what Foyt told Autosport earlier in the week, that there would be a priority put on oval testing. He also believed that simulator time was not an adequate substitute for the real thing.
“I have not driven a simulator on an oval,” he said. “To be honest, if I go back in my simulator experience, I don’t think it gives you the exact necessary tools to be able to learn something that’s going to relate to a real track, so I think ideally we just need to go testing on an oval somewhere, wherever it might be, and actually get me up to [speed].
“Obviously in the Road to Indy we haven’t done that much oval [racing], especially speedway stuff. I’ve never been on a superspeedway. So there’s a lot of dynamics that I need to learn, and that’s probably going to be one of the tougher things that I’ll have to come to grips with next year.”