ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Kyle Kirkwood loves the streets of St. Petersburg.
At the track where he made a victorious debut on the Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires by winning his first USF2000 race and championship in 2018, Kirkwood added his maiden Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires victory on Saturday.
Kirkwood bounced back from a difficult weekend at Barber Motorsports Park last week by leading home Andretti Autosport teammate Danial Frost by a little over a second.
David Malukas, who won one of the races last week at Barber, finished third for HMD Motorsports.
The first of two Indy Lights races for the weekend, the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by Foundation Building Materials began with Kirkwood on pole courtesy of his first Indy Lights Cooper Tires Pole Award in qualifying on Friday.
He led the field into the heavy braking area at turn one, where outside front row starter Malukas locked up his brakes and slid a little wide, allowing Italian-Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco to sneak into second for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.
Kirkwood immediately put his head down and began to extend his advantage, leaving the rest to battle in his wake. Malukas began to heap the pressure on DeFrancesco, with Frost – who was clearly on a mission – hot on their heels.
A fine move to the inside under braking for turn one saw Frost slide past Malukas, who then fell victim to a late-braking move by yet another Andretti Autosport Dallara, that of New Yorker Robert Megennis, in turn four.
From hoping to challenge for the lead, Malukas suddenly found himself in sixth, only just ahead of another tussle between points leader Linus Lundqvist – who was making his street course debut – and Australian Alex Peroni, who exchanged positions on lap seven.
Ten laps later, Lundqvist’s attempt to redress the balance at turn one went badly awry as he left his braking far too late, cannoned into the Australian and spun. He resumed after a pit stop at the back of the field.
In the meantime, Malukas had managed to repass Megennis and begun to close on Frost, who in turn was chasing hard after DeFrancesco.
As Kirkwood moved clear to the tune of over four seconds, DeFrancesco’s hopes of wresting the championship lead turned sour as he misjudged his braking for the final corner and skated off into the barriers, necessitating a full-course caution.
Kirkwood’s hard-won advantage was erased in a flash, but the Floridian was unfazed. He quickly reasserted himself at the restart and even posted the fastest lap of the race just two circuits from the end to cement an accomplished victory – his 22nd on the three levels of the Road to Indy, now only two behind Spencer Pigot’s record tally.
“I got chills at the finish! This feels so good,” said Kirkwood of the victory. “It’s been a while since I’ve won in an open-wheel car, and we know we’re going to have momentum for the rest of the year. We had a great start, the tires came in really well, we got the initial gap and were able to maintain it. I was pushing pretty hard with Devlin because the last thing I wanted to do was let him get within 1.5 seconds so he could get on the push-to-pass.
“I was disappointed to see the yellow, especially with Devlin going out, because we could have had a one-two-three Andretti finish. And Danial had incredible pace on the restart, so I knew I had to do something, and I was all over the place trying to keep the rear tires under me,” Kirkwood continued. “It was close, but we were on rails.
“I learned so much about this track from my USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 races: how the track evolves, how the layout works … they’ve done a nice job of keeping the layout the same, so I was able to take so much information from my years on the Road to Indy.”
Frost held off the advances of Malukas to finish second, with Megennis in fourth.
Peroni completed the top five, profiting from a late error by Denmark’s Benjamin Pedersen, who rejoined to finish 10th.
Last year’s winner of the Indy Pro 2000 Championship presented by Cooper Tires title, Sting Ray Robb, finished right on Peroni’s tail.
Robb’s effort earned him the Tilton Hard Charger Award after starting 12th.