With the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires season set to begin in St. Petersburg this weekend, drivers from three NTT IndyCar sanctioned divisions made a stop in South Florida first to participate in Spring Training at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The drivers who took part in the three-day testing sessions will be competing in either the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires or Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires during the 2019 season.
For a handful of drivers, the testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway is both an opportunity to gather valuable racing data before the season begins, as well as a chance to return home. Darren Keane, who hails from Boca Raton, and Jupiter natives Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood were looking forward to Road to Indy Spring Training for quite some time as they got to visit South Florida and race on a track with which they have great familiarity.
“It just sets the tone for the rest of the season, and the team and I really want to come in here, make an impression and show that we’re going to be one of the contenders for the series,” said Keane. “Especially since the first race is next weekend, if I come out of here with the quickest time it’s a good confidence booster as well.”
Keane, who posted the fastest time of the weekend among the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship drivers, got the confidence boost he was hoping for as he prepares to contend for the 2019 title with Cape Motorsports, a Florida-based team that has won an unprecedented eight consecutive series championships.
While Keane is learning to find the balance between his school work at University of Florida and his racing career, he has his sights set on bringing yet another USF2000 Championship to Cape Motorsports and reaping the rewards of being the series’ top driver – a scholarship to compete in the next series on his journey to a hopeful IndyCar career.
As drivers on the Road to Indy, scholarships are at stake for each of the three sanctioned divisions. These scholarships help provide drivers with a legitimate path to go from the grassroots to the pinnacle of the sport in North America. The Road to Indy has proven its success time and time again as 25 of the 33 drivers in the 2018 Indianapolis 500 were alumni of the program, including some of the sport’s biggest stars such as three-time champion Scott Dixon and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Kyle Kirkwood, who grew up racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the adjacent karting track, was a recipient of one of the scholarships last season as he won 12-of-14 races in the USF2000 Championship. Moving up to the next rung of the developmental ladder this year, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship, Kirkwood is looking to follow up last season’s dominance with another year full of trophies and another scholarship to his name. As Kirkwood inches ever so closer to his career goal of winning the Indianapolis 500, he relishes in the opportunity to test at the track where his racing dreams began.
“Coming back here, it brings a lot of memories because the first time I ever came to this track – before I was even driving or anything – I actually watched an IndyCar race and Scott Dixon won,” Kirkwood said of getting to return to Homestead-Miami Speedway. “So watching that and then being along the Road to Indy now and coming up the ladder system towards IndyCar and seeing that I could be one of the drivers that I idolized when I was so young watching that first IndyCar race is really incredible. And to come back here is very memorable and I feel honored.”
The local driver closest to joining his idols on the racetrack is Oliver Askew. Competing for Andretti Autosport this year, Askew is merely an Indy Lights championship away from receiving the $1.1 million scholarship package for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season.
Askew may be racing in the sport’s premier series as early as next season, but Keane and Kirkwood are hoping they too can be in a similar position in the next few years. But for the trio of South Florida drivers, simply landing a ride in the NTT IndyCar Series isn’t enough to satisfy them.
Perhaps Kirkwood said it best when asked about what it would mean to race in the IndyCar Series one day. “That’s ultimately the goal. That’s when the hard work starts though because once you’ve made it you have to keep striving, keep your position and move up to the best teams.”