Kyle Kirkwood hopes to continue riding the ‘Wave of Success’ on the streets of Long Beach


LONG BEACH, California – Kyle Kirkwood is hoping to ride the wave of success on the streets of Long Beach in Sunday’s 49th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach IndyCar Series race.

“Last time we were here. I was walking out of here as a first time winner in IndyCar, so there is a lot of excitement coming back here,” Kirkwood told NBCSports.com Thursday at Long Beach. “There is a lot of excitement for the team. in general. This has been a track that Andretti cars have been notoriously really, really good at.

“There are a lot of reasons to be excited to come back into this race and walk back across this track now.”

Before Kirkwood mastered the streets of Long Beach with his convincing victory in the 2023 edition of North America’s greatest street race, the Andretti Global IndyCar driver tried to “Catch a Wave” down the Pacific Coast at Trestles Beach.

Kirkwood is an avid surfer from Jupiter, Florida and enjoys riding the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. But all surfers know the best waves are on the Pacific, so the 25-year-old IndyCar star makes sure he brings his surfboard with him when he heads to Long Beach.

“I typically go one day leading up to the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and usually go down to San Clemente,” Kirkwood explained. “Trestles Beach is the spot. I don’t go to the main peak of the Trestles because the locals get pretty furious. But I go to a couple of little spots around there.”

Trestles Beach is 56 miles from Long Beach, down the Pacific Coast in San Clemente, California near a military base. It has some of the best surfing in Southern California, but avid surfers have to bike to the beach or walk a couple of miles to get to the best surfing location.

The Pacific Ocean is a surfer’s paradise because of the contour of the bottom of the ocean is different than the shallower bottom of the Atlantic. Storms in the middle of the Pacific Ocean build energy across the deep water, creating greater waves.

Surfing is one of Kirkwood’s favorite recreation activities outside of his No. 27 AutoNation Honda at Andretti Global. But he will be the first to admit he isn’t a master at riding the waves.

“I have not mastered surfing and I’ve been doing that for 15 years,” Kirkwood explained. “I’m an above average surfer, not near semi-pro but I’m decent and can do turns, occasionally get some air here and there but nothing crazy.

“It’s the water version of playing golf. You can do it forever and may never be great at it.”

On dry asphalt, however, it didn’t take long for Kirkwood to establish his greatness at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

He started 12th and finished 10th in his rookie season with AJ Foyt Racing in 2022 before he returned to his racing home at Andretti Global after that season.

In 2023 at Long Beach, Kirkwood scored his first career IndyCar pole and earned high praise from team owner Michael Andretti who called him “The Real Deal.”

Kirkwood followed that the next day by leading 53 laps in the 85-lap Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach to score his first-career NTT IndyCar Series win.

He defeated then-teammate Romain Grosjean by 0.991-of-a-second.

Instead of being the “King of The Beach” on his surfboard, Kirkwood became “King of the Streets of Long Beach” in his Honda Indy car.

“It started off a little shaky, though,” Kirkwood recalled. “I was getting yelled at by my engineer for not being able to put in a lap in Practice 1 because I kept catching up to random traffic. But we knew we were fast.

“It was just that one practice session.

“We put it on pole and won the race. The only thing that didn’t go as planned in the middle of the race is when we started behind some traffic. I was behind Agustin Canapino and some other guys and actually ran into the back of Canapino. That put us behind Josef Newgarden for a few laps.

“But it was actually nice because I was able to figure out what Josef was doing, and we were able to capitalize on saving some fuel behind him for later in the race.”

That fuel-saving strategy paid off as the pole winner was able to lead the final 30 laps of the race to keep Grosjean in his rear-view mirror.

After the checkered flag dropped, Kirkwood was able to drive the No. 27 Honda to Victory Lane as the winner of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

It was the day Kirkwood “Came of Age” as an IndyCar driver.

“It was an important day in Kyle’s career because he had won everything there was to win on the road up to IndyCar,” explained former driver Bryan Herta, who calls race strategy for Kirkwood at Andretti Global. “He certainly earmarked himself as a future IndyCar winner. That has certain expectations with it. To get that first win was certainly a relief. The expectation was there it was going to happen, and you want to get that first one done and over with and prove it to yourself that you can.

“After that, it helps the driver relax a little more, feel a little more confident, feel a little less pressure.

“From that point on, we saw a really, really strong version of Kyle the rest of the year.”

When Kirkwood arrived at Andretti Global, he was confident that he had the equipment, the car, and the team to win in IndyCar. But Herta believes Kirkwood’s rookie season with AJ Foyt Racing helped prepare him to become a winner.

“Maybe the year with Foyt didn’t provide a lot of highlights for him in terms of results, it did provide a lot of experience and understanding of the race craft in IndyCar, the different tire compounds, and things that are important in racing,” Herta said. “I think without that year with Foyt, he doesn’t win the Long Beach Grand Prix.

“Having that year of experience really set him up to be in a position to take advantage when he had a car, and the opportunity and Long Beach was certainly that.”

It was just the second race for Herta as Kirkwood’s race strategist. Before the preceding race at Texas Motor Speedway, team owner Michael Andretti made the decision to move Herta off his son Colton’s, timing stand to work with Kirkwood.

It seemed to be a stroke of genius as Bryan Herta and Kirkwood were the winners at Long Beach – the first of two wins in 2023 as the combination also celebrated at Nashville in August.

“I’ve said this before but one of the great joys I have in still being able to participate in this sport and work with drivers is to be part of their successes and enjoy them vicariously,” Herta said. “I know both myself as a driver and being part of other driver’s first wins in IndyCar, how important, how momentous that is, what it does for their careers.

“It’s a great joy to be able to share that with him and be part of that experience.”

For Kirkwood, Herta and everyone connected with the team at Andretti Global, it was also important to celebrate the victory with Honda Racing Corporation, USA. That operation is located about 90 minutes north in Santa Clarita, California.

American Honda Motor Company is about 20 miles up the road in Torrance, California and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is major event as it features the Acura brand in the IMSA race on Saturday and Honda in the IndyCar contest on Sunday.

“That is one they really want to win,” Honda driver Kirkwood said. “They don’t want the other manufacturer winning any race, but the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is the big one for them. It’s the second biggest race of the year for us. They are the main sponsor for that event. We are expected to go out and win and make their brand look good.

“It’s a little bit more pressure, but we like the pressure.”

Honda and Acura teams feel a tremendous sense of pride when they arrive at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. To participate in the greatest street race in North America is an honor.

To win it, is a thrill and a career accomplishment.

“The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is the race that made me want to be a race car driver, specifically be an IndyCar driver,” Bryan Herta said. “It was really the event coming to as a kid. We moved to Southern California when I was 10 years old and all of my formative racing memories were about going to Long Beach, much more so than the Indy 500 or any other IndyCar race. I wanted to race in the Long Beach Grand Prix.

“To me, it was very special to go there every year, be part of that race and still participate is a great thrill.”

Kirkwood didn’t get to catch a wave at Trestles Beach before heading to Long Beach this year because of a busy schedule.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get into the water this week,” Kirkwood said. “It’s been super busy given that I won the race last year and media has been dragging me in every single direction all through the week, so I haven’t had a chance to get in the water.

“But I did go and watch for about 15 minutes this morning. I had a notorious spot called ‘The Wedge,’ where it was like double overhead waves. People were breaking boards left and right. It was actually pretty crazy.

“It makes me want to get out there, but at the same time, this is my primary job. This is what I’m here to do. I’m not here to surf.”

So, the natural question is, which is more hair-raising, driving an Indy car at a top speed around the streets of Long Beach or riding the big waves on the Pacific Ocean on a surfboard?

“Surprisingly, I’m going to go with the waves because I’m a little better in an IndyCar than I am a surfer, so I’m going to go with that one,” Kirkwood admitted.

Despite watching the waves instead of riding them, Kirkwood hopes to continue that wave of success to a second-straight victory in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“That is always the goal,” Kirkwood said. “It would be a huge accomplishment. Alexander Rossi did it a few years back (2018-2019). We had a fast car in every session last year and I don’t think that is going to change for this year.

“I expect us to be really quick again this weekend. This track just suits our cars and it suits me. Last year, I rocked back up here and had the greatest race of my career.

“If anything, we are going to be even better.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500



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