Story By: ANNE FORNORO / AJ FOYT RACING – LONG BEACH, CA – Rookie power! The ROKiT rookies were the top-finishing rookies in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Kyle Kirkwood scored his first top-10 finish of the season with his 10th place showing in the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet while Tatiana Calderón finished 16th in the No. 11 ROKiT Chevrolet in just her second start in the NTT INDYCAR Series.
Starting on the softer alternate (red) tire compound, Kirkwood lined up 12th on the grid and ran there until his first pitstop on lap 28 to switch to the harder primary compound tires. Following that stop he moved into 11th and ran there until his next stop on lap 55 when he again took on the primary compound tires. After that stop he moved into the top 10 and briefly held ninth when Marcus Ericsson hit the wall on the lap 66 restart following the crash by pole sitter Colton Herta in Turn 9. Helio Castroneves snuck by Kirkwood the following lap and the rookie settled into 10th. In the closing laps of the 85-lapper, he had to fend off charges from Felix Rosenqvist but Kirkwood held his own.
“The race went exceptional for us at AJ Foyt Racing,” said the 23-year-old Floridian. “It’s a sweet ‘win’ for us because we’ve had a couple of finishes we didn’t want with the pace we had. Today we had the pace and we were able to show that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make some passes happen but we got into the top-10. We were absolutely solid on the red tires. I felt like we could make some passes but everyone was a little too bunched up in the first stint to make that happen.
“Once we went to the black tires, we were able to run with everyone else who was in front of us but it was a bit of a fuel-saving game, so we were all kind of sitting in limbo,” he continued. “The restarts here are just so tough because you come out of the last corner and it’s a massive accordion effect. You can’t make passes happen into Turn One. It’s so tight between the walls to make the passes anywhere else. It’s just so difficult. We’re right there with the big dogs and we’re right there with the big teams. We were quick today and we showed that. All we did was go forward. It was solid points for the team. I’m super happy and everyone is smiling.”
Calderón made real progress after her first race in St. Petersburg in February. Starting 26th today, she avoided the mistakes that saw eight of her fellow competitors in the tire barriers and the unforgiving walls on the 11-turn, 1.96-mile street circuit. Her 16th place finish made her the second highest finishing rookie of the six that were in the race.
“I’m really happy with the steps we have made since St. Petersburg,” said the Colombian native. “I feel much more confident in the car, even on pit stops and making little adjustments and learning how to deal with the tires better. I’m really thankful for the team. They did a fantastic job. Of course, we want to be fighting more people in the next couple of races. The steps we took were huge and I’ll carry that confidence into Barber.”
Unfortunately, the one driver who wasn’t all smiles after the race was Dalton Kellett whose race ended early in the No. 4 K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet.
“I got a little deep into the brake zone for Turn One and carried too much speed through the entry to the corner, got wide and hit the barriers,” said the 28-year-old Canadian. “I was trying to shift into fuel-saving mode and kind of misjudged it on the brakes.”
“It was a decent day for AJ Foyt Racing here in Long Beach,” said Team President Larry Foyt. “Happy for Kyle Kirkwood and the 14 ROKiT team, achieving what we know will be the first of many top-10s. Tatiana showed great progress in only her second race to finish p16. Bummed for Dalton as his race was just getting started when the contact put him out but many drivers had some issues on this tough street circuit.”
Josef Newgarden waged a tight battle with Romain Grosjean to come out on top and win his second straight race of the season, and gave Team Penske and Team Chevy their third straight victory. Following the top duo were INDYCAR champion Alex Palou, Will Power and Pato O’Ward.
The teams will head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an Open Test on April 20-21. The next race will be the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on May 1.