For any athlete, especially a race car driver, there is only one way to describe Kyle Kirkwood’s 2018 season — it was a dream.
In 32 races, the 20-year-old Jupiter, Fla., driver ended the year with 30 podium finishes, including 28 victories, that resulted in two series championships.
Those are career numbers for some race car drivers, but Kirkwood tallied all that in one long season. It was a dream season that was nearly only a dream.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 series is the first step in IndyCar’s developmental program called the Road To Indy. Driving since he was 5 years old, Kirkwood felt he was ready to begin climbing the Road To Indy and knew he needed to make a good first impression. But with less than a month before the start of the season at the Firestone St. Petersburg Grand Prix, Kirkwood was without a team.
A successful test with the prestigious Cape Motorsports team on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway just two weeks before the season opener was the break he needed.
“Starting off the year in St. Petersburg, Fla., was probably the most stressful and anxious time of my life,” Kirkwood said. “There was so many expectations lingering over my head considering I was running with the most winning junior team in the U.S., which had also just won the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda with Oliver Askew in 2017. The weight on my shoulders was massive.”
Though Kirkwood placed immense pressure on himself in his Road To Indy debut, it didn’t show. In the first race of the season, he qualified second and won the race. He backed up the win the next day with a fifth-place finish in the second race, which ended up being his lowest finish of the season.
Though the rest of the USF2000 season looked like smooth sailing, it was not without hidden pressure.
“One thing that was kept quiet was that if I had one wreck, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the season,” said Kirkwood. “Another was if I didn’t keep winning, I wouldn’t be able to finish the season either. Every prize dollar had to go straight back into the budget and even that was barely enough. I had to take risks to win 12 of the 14 races, just so I could keep racing.”
It was a set of circumstances that propelled him to amass 12 wins, tying him with J.R. Hildebrand for the most wins in a USF2000 season.
As he closed in on the USF2000 championship during a tripleheader weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course late in July, talks began that would put Kirkwood in a car for the new F-3 Americas Championship presented by Honda, which was launching in Pittsburgh the very next weekend.
A day after clinching the Cooper Tires USF2000 championship, Kirkwood was strapping into a bigger and faster F-3 car owned by Abel Motorsports for a test.
Kirkwood, with a mountain of pressure removed and full of confidence, dominated the inaugural F-3 Americas season, winning 15 of the 17 races. The highlight of his F-3 season came in October with a thrilling .251-second victory in the final race in front of the Formula One crowd at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.