Between them, Kirkwood and Malukas have won 16 of the 18 rounds of the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship held so far, with Kirkwood’s utter domination of the double-header at Laguna Seca pushing the victory tally to 9-7 in his favor. That has created a healthy 15-point margin at the top of the table but it is by no means a lock for Kirkwood, since there are 64 points on offer across the two rounds at Mid-Ohio this weekend.
What would make Jupiter, FL.-born Kirkwood the favorite even if he was only equal on points with his rival is the very strong form that he and his Andretti Autosport team displayed in the summer rounds at Mid-Ohio’s 2.258-mile 13-turn course. Kirkwood and one of his teammates, Danial Frost, were able to keep Malukas of HMD Motorsport on the bottom step of the podium.
And Mid-Ohio has always been a happy hunting ground for Kirkwood, whatever he drives. It’s his equivalent of the Sachsenring to Marc Marquez, in that he’s never been beaten there. Three USF2000 wins in 2018, two wins in Indy Pro 2000 the following year, and the Indy Lights sweep this past summer.
Even if the Andretti team unexpectedly struggles this weekend compared with HMD, all is not lost, for Kirkwood has proven he can magic wins even with a performance deficit. That second race at Portland, for instance, where he zoomed past the squabbling Malukas and GRG/HMD teammate Linus Lundqvist to take the lead and hold it to the checkered flag, was a spectacular example of a driver being faster than his car.
Should Kirkwood, 22, land the title, he’ll be making history as the first driver to win the championships in all three categories on the Road To Indy, after earning successive USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 titles and scholarships in 2018 and 2019. His one-year sabbatical in 2020 was enforced by Indy Lights being put on hiatus during the global pandemic.
One piece of history already in his pocket is having won more Road To Indy races than any other driver – 30 victories in just 48 starts.
All that said, Malukas wouldn’t make an unworthy champion. HMD truly stepped up to the plate this year, and the second-year Lights driver has been with it all the way. The Chicago, IL native does occasionally find himself starting behind teammate Lundqvist – the only other driver to score wins this year – and even more rarely, finishing behind him. But generally Malukas is HMD’s leading edge. He knows how and when to attack, he knows how to defend, and without Kirkwood’s one major mistake this year – nerfing his prime rival off the road at Lap 1, Turn 1 in the season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park – Malukas might have eight wins and be just a couple of marks off the lead in the points race.
As ever for Lights drivers, at stake is a scholarship of around $1.25m to guarantee the champion three IndyCar races in 2022, including the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500. Given that both drivers would likely shine in the ‘big cars’ it would be sad if either missed out.
The HMD team’s surge to prominence in 2021 – to where it’s on par and sometimes superior to the squad that’s produced the last two Lights champions – has been a surprise to some but not to Malukas himself.
He told Motorsport.com: “I was expecting to compete [for the title], yeah, mainly because we did that one session at St. Pete in 2020 [before COVID canned the season] and we were quickest there. If it wasn’t for that, maybe not. We came in with BN Racing in 2019 and it wasn’t that good, certainly not what we have now, until the last couple of races. The team put the hard work in – we have really good people – and that one session in 2020 made me confident that we’d be up there.”
And Malukas is honest enough to admit that he’s benefited from being partnered with Lundqvist and Benjamin Pedersen, despite their rookie status.
“Linus and my driving styles are very similar, the throttle and braking shapes in the traces, how we enter the corner, and so we really help each other,” he said. “And Ben… man, I don’t know if there’s an award for most progress during a season, but he should get it! We tested at Laguna before the season started, and to compare his data then to how he’s driving now, it’s transformed. So yeah, it’s helpful having two good teammates like Linus and Ben.”
Malukas is still Motorsport.com’s bet for the #18 Dale Coyne Racing-Honda in 2022, and the man himself believes he will make it to the top level of open-wheel racing in 2022, whatever the points tally on Sunday evening.
“I do, yes. There is some interest there and I’m very excited,” he said. “I think with or without the championship, next year we can move up and show that we belong in IndyCar… But the $1.25m would be nice to have too!”
Kirkwood’s future is more uncertain, because it seems likely that Michael Andretti will cut him loose in November, with no place to graduate him to his top team. One of Kirkwood’s teammates Devlin De Francesco should soon be confirmed in the #29 AA-Honda vacated by James Hinchcliffe.
“There seems to be a lot of interest but no real movement,” said Kirkwood, “nothing I can really put my hopes on. A lot of it comes down to what happens at the end of the season and whether I win the championship and scholarship.
“I feel like I’ve talked to almost everyone in IndyCar but it comes down to budgets. I would hope there’s enough interest in me that I could get a ride whatever happens with the Lights championship, but I wish I could say that for certain! The situation is that if I win the scholarship, then yes, I know that guarantees me three races next year but right now I couldn’t even tell you which team that would be with. That’s how up-in-the-air things are.
“But I want to at least have that problem – let’s try and get that title. I’m trying to make sure that’s all I’m focused on for now.”
Indy Lights sessions (Eastern time)
Friday, Oct. 1
3.00 – 3.45pm – Practice
Saturday, Oct. 2
9.25 – 10.05am – Qualifying for Race 1
1.00 – 1.50pm – Race 1
Sunday, Oct 3
8.45 – 9.15am – Qualifying for Race 2
12.00 – 12.50pm – Race 2