Following Newgarden’s clinching of the 2011 Indy Lights championship, he moved to IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, working with O’Rourke.
O’Rourke was then with Harding Steinbrenner Racing – a satellite Andretti Autosport operation – when Colton Herta made his IndyCar debut at the end of 2018, after his second consecutive year of finishing runner-up in Lights. O’Rourke has served as Herta’s race engineer ever since, and has therefore contributed to the 21-year-old already accumulating six wins and seven pole positions.
Now O’Rourke says he sees similar magic in Andretti Autosport’s 2021 Indy Lights champion Kirkwood, who completed his second test with the squad on Monday.
“They’re super-similar,” said O’Rourke who has been overseeing Kirkwood – currently without a confirmed ride for 2022 – while colleague Ray Gosselin runs Devlin DeFrancesco, who is penciled in as James Hinchcliffe’s replacement in the #29 car. “When Colton did his first run, I thought the same thing as when Josef did his first run, and then when Kyle did his first run, I thought the same thing as when Colton did his first run.
“You can tell right away when a guy is good. He gets up to speed right away, he doesn’t need lots of extra laps to put in his ideal laptime. I think we saw that from Kyle in Lights, right? Whatever time he did, that was probably as fast as that car could go on that day.
“That’s how he was at Sebring a couple of weeks ago in his first IndyCar test, and that’s how he was at Barber on Monday. We’re super-impressed with Kyle and we really appreciate his help.
“These last two tests we’ve really learned a lot and he’s already giving us stuff that will make us better when we come back.”
Although Kirkwood, who took the Lights championship with 10 wins this year, actually finished the Barber Motorsports Park driver evaluation test two-tenths behind DeFrancesco, O’Rourke said there was a good reason for that.
“Kyle’s time doesn’t show how good he was, because he dropped a wheel and flat-spotted a tire on his third set which put us behind the eight-ball for the rest of the day,” he said. “So we didn’t end up with the fastest one-lap setup at the end of the test and that’s why he wasn’t able to go after a big lap.
“But up to that point he was in lockstep with everyone else in terms of lap-time progression. Honestly I’d say that again, it was a good day for both of our drivers.
“The Sebring test a couple of weeks back was a case of running Kyle and Devlin for as many laps as possible to get them used to an IndyCar. For the Barber test, we wanted to gauge what they provided in terms of feedback, and evaluate some bigger setup concepts and how they responded to them.
“They both gave us really good information – good enough that it will help make us better when we come back next April.
“Kyle doesn’t need to set a super-quick time for us to know he’s a really, really good driver. Obviously we wanted to end up faster but we know exactly why we didn’t.”
O’Rourke will oversee the Andretti Autosport-Honda in which Kirkwood (among others) will turn laps on Friday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.