Catching Up with Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood, Part One
 November 15, 2018| 
  • Series News

Like typical close friends, they finish each other’s sentences, question each other’s ability to remember events and analyze each other’s behavior. But Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood, two of the up-and-coming stars in American motorsports, are anything but your typical pair of young Floridians.

Drivers often come up through the ranks together, but few have seen their careers parallel each other some completely as have Askew, 21, and Kirkwood, 20. Born and raised just minutes away from each other in Jupiter, Fla., they have known each other for 14 years. The duo grew up karting together, made the jump to race cars together, and now finds themselves earning championships and accolades alongside each other on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The story of their first meeting has taken on an urban myth quality: at the age of 5, Kirkwood arrived at a mutual friend’s birthday party straight from the karting track and wearing his driver’s suit, intriguing Askew. Only problem is, neither remembers a thing about that day.

“I don’t remember anything about it, and I don’t know why I would have been wearing my suit!” said Kirkwood.

“We were kids,” answered Askew. “We’d have rolled around in the mud in our suits! But supposedly, he was wearing this suit and I couldn’t figure out why. But our parents met at that party and started talking, and that’s where they got the idea to take us both out to the track – that and another birthday party that I’d been to earlier where they’d had toy electric karts they were running around the driveway. I loved it, and my dad was researching karting when he met Kyle’s dad. So that’s where it started.”

The only drivers in the Cadet class, the pair competed against each other for several years. Oliver and his father, Tony (a retired air traffic controller) worked on their kart out of the family SUV for the first several years, while Kyle and his father Cam competed with a small local team. In 2011, Askew signed on to race with Jorge Arellano and Ocala Gran Prix – an internationally-known karting team and series – and the friendship took off in earnest when Kirkwood joining the team in 2013.

“What Jorge has done for us and for the entire karting community, is huge,” said Askew. “I don’t think we’d be in this position now without him. Sponsorship in karting is virtually unheard of, so to stumble into something like that is crazy. I’m not sure we’d still be racing without his help.”

“We raced with Jorge until 2015, 2016,” said Kirkwood. “We stayed together, trained together, carpooled up to Ocala together. We went up there every weekend during the summer, every other weekend during the school year.”

“We were so excited when I finally got my driver’s license,” said Askew. “We thought it was so cool that we could drive ourselves – we’d take videos along the way, driving one of our parents’ cars.”

The pair enjoyed significant success in their karting careers, with Kirkwood winning SKUSA SuperNats in 2013, the Florida Winter Tour in Rotax Senior and Senior ROK in 2015 and 2016, and Askew earning the Florida Winter Tour titles in Rotax Junior in 2012 and MRP Motorsport Rotax Senior in 2014, and Rotax DD2 in 2016. But the path from karts to cars was unclear for both drivers – until Jeremy Shaw and Team USA Scholarship came calling.

Shaw invited Kirkwood to Mid-Ohio for program interviews in 2015, which would have meant missing Nationals, but the young racer, not really understanding what was at stake in the scholarship program, opted to keep his karting commitment (“today, we would absolutely have canned the kart race!” interjects Askew.) Kirkwood kept Shaw up-to-date on his progress and was asked to come to Mid-Ohio for interviews the following year. Askew had seen the Team USA news on social media but like Kirkwood, didn’t know what the program entailed. Encouraged by a fellow karter to contact Shaw, Askew “worked up the guts” to make the call, and soon, the pair was on their way to Mid-Ohio in July of 2016.

“We had to miss a karting event to go to Mid-Ohio,” said Kirkwood. “No,” corrected Askew, “we missed a karting race when we were in England.” “Oh, that’s right,” Kirkwood continued.

“Neither one of us had any idea of how to move from karting to race cars,” said Askew. “I wish I’d have done it much sooner. Kyle had done some F1600, but originally, Jeremy wasn’t going to pick me to go because I had no car experience. I did a few races in China, but it wasn’t enough. So I did a Skip Barber weekend at Road America and did well enough to get picked to go to Mid-Ohio for the initial interviews.”

The pair survived the “super tense” interviews, perhaps because of extensive time in the hotel room the night before, doing practice interviews with each other. They interviewed in front of a panel impressive enough to cause any young driver a few knee knocks, including Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, future Verizon IndyCar Series champion (and Team USA alumni) Josef Newgarden, Mazda sports car driver Tristan Nunez (also a Team USA alumni), and Cape Motorsports’ Nicholas and Dominic Cape. The experience of answering questions helped both drivers – whether the practice answers actually got used or not.

“It was funny, because Oliver and I worked so hard in those practice interviews,” said Kirkwood, “and I didn’t use any of it in the real interviews. It’s a thing with me: I did the same thing for all three of my championship speeches - absolutely none of what I wrote down to say came out of my mouth. Not a single thing. Anytime I have a plan of what to say, it goes right out the window when the time comes and I just totally wing it. I have something to look at, but I never do.” Not Askew. “I’ll have everything I want to say written down and read from it. It works for me.”

The on-track Shootout was at nearby Palm Beach International Raceway in the Lucas Oil School of Racing cars. Askew, with almost no race car experience, struggled in the early going, while Kirkwood led in the time trials. Askew eventually found his footing, leading the final session on Saturday. Kirkwood earned the early nod from Shaw, but it wasn’t until Askew wrote a blog post for the Team USA website – the day after the time trials – that Shaw was convinced he could handle himself in the pressure-packed environment, racing against some of the top junior formula racers in the world in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.

“We talked about it ahead of time,” said Kirkwood, “what would happen if we both got picked to go to England. I mean, that would be absolutely nuts if it happened. And it was.” “Surreal,” agreed Askew.

The pair headed for England, in a three-week expedition which, like the tale of the birthday party meeting, has taken on mythic proportions. In addition to the racing, Askew and Kirkwood visited Ilmor Engineering, West Surrey Racing (a top British Touring Car Championship team), McLaren F1 and sportscar headquarters, a McLaren GT UK racing headquarter, and Wirth Research design and manufacturing center.

The duo spent a week in London, where Kirkwood’s ability to plan travel and instantly remember map routes paired perfectly with Askew’s understanding of a basic schedule. “I just sort of followed him around!” said Askew. “He’s good at maps but he’s terrible at multi-tasking, so I made sure I had a schedule on my phone and knew where we had to be and when we had to be there.”

Askew and Kirkwood enjoyed success at the pair of events, with Kirkwood earning a heat race win at Silverstone, and Askew scoring two podiums at Brands Hatch, two poles and two wins at Silverstone, and a second-place finish in the Walter Hayes Trophy finale.

Part two next week: Kirkwood and Askew find success on the Mazda Road to Indy and beyond

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