When a legendary driver such as Michael Andretti says, “He’s the real deal,” about a young driver you need to pay attention.
But it was impossible not to notice Kyle Kirkwood pushing his hot pink AutoNation car for team Andretti Autosport around the downtown street course this weekend at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The second-year driver was tops during qualifying for the first time in his career, and then on Sunday he drove a near perfect race to win his first NTT IndyCar Series event.
“We didn’t touch the car after qualifying,” Kirkwood said. “I’m over the moon right now. This is incredible. (At the finish) I just had a moment of relaxation. It was the calmest (race day) I’ve had in two years and it’s a win. I felt like I needed this win.”
Kirkwood, 24, had a tough-luck start to his season after being involved in crashes during the first two NTT IndyCar Series races at St. Petersburg and Texas Motor Speedway. On Sunday, he and his crew were much better in the pits and that was his key to victory.
“To have my first win at Long Beach is something incredible,” he said. “This is such a special place…it’s this race and Indianapolis. It’s so cool.”
The history in Long Beach runs deep for Andretti, who also won his first (and last) IndyCar races on the streets of Long Beach. His father, Mario Andretti, was the first American to win a Formula 1 race on American soil when he also won in Long Beach.
“He’ll remember this day for a long, long time, in fact probably forever,” Andretti said of Kirkwood. “It’s always extra special (to get your first win) in a place like Long Beach. It’s a huge event, and an iconic event. The fans are so into it you just love doing well here. For us, this has been a very special place, there’s so many things we’ve been able to do here in Long Beach.”
This was just the 20th start of his career for Kirkwood, and this is his first full season with Andretti Autosport. His teammate Romain Grosjean took second, and Marcus Ericsson was third to round out the podium.
“I’m thankful for (Andretti) taking a chance on me,” Kirkwood said. “He told me this weekend that, ‘If you’re up front we’ve done the hard part,’ and we played a fantastic strategy today.”
As the pole sitter, Kirkwood was able to cruise through the first 20 of 85 laps while avoiding some crashes behind him involving longtime IndyCar drivers Hélio Castroneves and Scott Dixon.
Defending race champion Josef Newgarden took a gamble and went to pit lane first on Lap 23 to take over the top spot. However, a great pit stop with 31 laps to go allowed Kirkwood to beat Newgarden and teammate Grosjean to Turn 1 where he retook the lead for good.
Kirkwood said after qualifying that his confidence on street courses played perfectly in Long Beach.
“I feel comfortable up against walls and I thrive on (street courses) because I feel like I understand the limits of the car very well,” he said. “This track has two really tight corners at turn 11 and turn 1. I tend to really enjoy those corners. I don’t know why. Some people think they’re kind of boring, or maybe too tight for an IndyCar to go through. I love them. I think it’s fun. It’s challenging and not something you get to do on any other race track.”
For Grosjean, it is his fifth career podium and fourth second place finish. He was also second last year in Long Beach.
“I wish it was the other way around, but he had a great weekend and he deserves it,” Grosjean said of the 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosports. “He drove a hell of a race, like a champ. We had a fuel situation so we couldn’t push him. Protecting the team was the right thing to do.”
That fuel situation also limited Grosjean’s ability to use all of his push to pass boost.
“For once I saved too much, I guess,” he said. “It sucks. I just wanted to push the button and I wasn’t allowed to.”
The third place finish for Ericsson moves him to the top of the IndyCar championship points race.
“It’s five Hondas in the top 5 at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, it doesn’t get much better than that,” Ericsson said.
“There are so many things we’ve been able to do here in Long Beach that it makes it special for us,” Andretti said.
When he came across the finish line with room to spare, Kirkwood said he got emotional on his way to the winners circle.
“I was trying to hold back tears in the car,” Kirkwood said. “Once I crossed the finish line, I was so happy for myself, the team, the crew, (Andretti) and everyone who helped make this happen. They work harder than me, to be honest.”
According to Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President & CEO Jim Michaelian, all of the reserved grandstand seats were sold out on Sunday as more than 192,000 attended the race. That is a record for the modern era since the IndyCar/Champ Car series merger in 2008.