Kyle Larson gets a chance to live a dream by competing in the 108thIndianapolis 500 in 2024. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion got a head start on that quest when he joined Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon at Thursday’s practice session for the 107thIndianapolis 500.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver and his racing boss, who just happens to be a five-time winner of the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spent the day with Arrow McLaren Racing.
That’s the team Larson will drive for in next year’s Indianapolis 500.
It’s also a chance for two of the biggest names in racing – the famed McLaren brand in Formula One and IndyCar and the most successful team in NASCAR history Hendrick Motorsports – to join forces in the biggest and most famous race in the world.
That creates some significant business opportunities between the McLaren brand and Hendrick Automotive – a coast-to-coast, multi-billion-dollar organization.
“For us, I think on the Hendrick Motorsports side, it's building this relationship with Arrow McLaren so that next year we can do everything we can to maximize its full potential, get Kyle everything he needs, to get Arrow McLaren everything they need, to make sure that this effort goes as smooth as possible and gives them the best opportunity to get a great result,” Gordon said Thursday.
Gavin Ward is the Arrow McLaren Racing Director and sees tremendous value in aligning with the iconic Hendrick team featuring the legendary Gordon and one of the most versatile racing drivers in the United States with the 30-year-old Larson.
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“What better fit for a team like McLaren that's taken to racing in a lot of different forms to have a driver like Kyle who has shown such versatility,” Ward said. “I think just for the team to build this relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, Hendrick Cars, is great. I think one of the best racing teams in the world, racing organizations in the world. Fun to kind of get that together.
“Having this little bit of time to try to introduce Indianapolis Motor Speedway racing with IndyCar to Kyle, get ahead of it here and show him a bit how we work, what's involved. I think it's a great opportunity.”
This will be team owner Rick Hendrick’s first attempt at the Indianapolis 500. The most successful team owner in NASCAR history is also involved in this year’s Garage 56 entry that will compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
Gordon believes that is valuable for the entire organization.
“The fact that Rick has never been to the Indy 500, we're going to go to Le Mans this year, next year he's going to come to the Indy 500, that's extremely exciting for our organization, as well as the things we can learn from Arrow McLaren in what they do here to compete for this event,” Gordon said. “I think there's crossover we can learn from one another.
“We are super excited. Excited for Kyle. As well as he has the ability, when he has the equipment and the resources, the people surrounding him, he has the ability to go do extraordinary things. We've seen him do it in other cars. I have no doubt that he'll be able to do that in the Indy 500 next year, as well.”
Rick Hendrick is a car guy. The Indianapolis 500 is a race for “car guys.”
The relationship with Hendrick and McLaren makes tremendous business sense.
“He loves racing. He loves cars,” Gordon said of Hendrick. “NASCAR is always going to be our primary focus, where our history, our legacy lies.
“I will say that if you want to run a good business, you have to diversify yourself. We've seen ourselves get into GM defense manufacturing; we're seeing ourselves go to Le Mans. We've dabbled a little bit in IMSA. We have a great relationship with Chevrolet and our friends at GM.
“If there's something that makes sense for us as a company, as Hendrick Motorsports, then we're certainly going to look at it, look at whether or not it makes sense for us or not.”
This year’s fulltime IndyCar lineup for Arrow McLaren includes Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of Northern California.
Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar Series champion, has been added to the lineup for this year Indy 500. It will be the last IndyCar race in Kanaan’s career.
Next year at Indy, that extra entry will go to Larson, the man who can drive anything to victory, from the NASCAR Cup Series to the World of Outlaws to USAC Midgets to Late Model stock cars.
The kid from Elk Grove, California has always been a big Indy 500 fan. He has expressed his desire to compete in the Indy 500, but it’s been 10 years in the making for him to finally get permission from a NASCAR Cup Series team to let him run the Indianapolis 500.
“I think when I was with Chip Ganassi Racing in the NASCAR stuff, I think a lot of people, maybe myself at times, thought that I would go immediately to try to compete in the Indy 500 for Chip,” Larson told me Thursday at IMS. “I wasn't as accomplished yet in the NASCAR stuff. I wanted to be able to not feel like I was taking a ton away from that stuff. Now I've been able to accomplish a lot in the NASCAR stuff. Hendrick is obviously always a consistent frontrunner. I thought you could take a little bit of focus away from that to run the Indy 500.
“I don't want to do this to just do it. I want to do it, take it seriously, feel like I'm prepared enough to win.
“I feel like I'm surrounded by great people and looking forward for the opportunity. I've got 300 some odd days to try to get ready.”
A key element to this deal is team owner Rick Hendrick will also get to be involved with the Indy 500 for the first time in his legendary career. The most successful team owner in NASCAR history will get a chance to align with Zak Brown, the McLaren CEO in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
There is plenty of risk involved when a driver attempts something out of his element. Hendrick Motorsports has already had two drivers miss races because of injuries in other risky adventures.
Chase Elliott missed six weeks of action because of a fractured tibia in his left leg in a snowboarding accident on March 3 in Colorado.
Earlier this month, Alex Bowman suffered a broken T-3 vertebra in a sprint car crash at 34 Raceway in West Burlington, Iowa and his expected to miss 3-4 races.
Gordon was asked if there was any hesitation at Hendrick Motorsports to put a pause on Larson’s Indy 500 run in 2024.
“I think our approach is that we want to support these guys in things that they want
to take on,” Gordon explained. “With Kyle, we've had this conversation a lot. He feels like that type of racing actually helps him get prepared and be sharp on Sunday in the Cup car. We've actually seen the results of that.
“They have to make good, smart decisions, be in good equipment, not take too much risk when they're involved in that, whether it's racing or other things.
“I can tell you I did a lot of extracurricular activities, even if it wasn't in other race cars, throughout my entire career, and see the benefits of it.
“We're going to support our guys to do the same. We're going to encourage them to really weigh out the risk versus the reward and make sure they're in the best equipment with the best team and the best opportunity to go out there and make the experience a good one. That's the way we look at this.”
Larson has spent time at the Arrow McLaren race shop on Coffman Road on the northwest side of Indianapolis and has had a seat fitting. The team is hoping to test him in an Indy car later this season.
“I went to their race shop a couple weeks ago to get the first initial kind of seat insert formed to me,” Larson said. “We still have to finish that whole process.
“They gave me a big packet of stuff to look at, notes and dash displays, emailed me some onboard footage. I watched all of that. Kind of got a sense of just nice to see the onboard, see shifting, adjusting, all the cockpit adjustable things that they have, just seeing how the flow of the race kind of goes, how they position themselves behind people in traffic, stuff like that. Restart procedures, all of that. Pit stops, pulling into your pit sign, all of that.
“But I don't know when I'm testing yet. I don't want to, like, pick people's brains yet, other drivers' brains too early on, then have to go to them in a few months and ask the same questions over again. I want to wait a little bit to pick their brains some.
“I definitely want to talk to guys who are familiar with stockcars and Indy cars, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, guys who have done this more recently.
“I don't want to do it too early yet and get on their nerves when I go to ask them again later on.”
Ward said before putting Larson the race track, they will spend time in the General Motors simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.
Larson understands the Indy car is a bit more complicated than some of the other cars that he has raced, but he believes he can quickly adapt to the different type of race car.
“I would say everything that I race is much more simple than an Indy car,” Larson said. “The only kind of thing I feel like that I have to judge off of that was new to me, not overwhelming but just stressful, was when I did the Rolex 24 for the few years that we did.
“It’s obviously different cars, but a lot more total different kind of foreign style racing to me, which I feel like IndyCar stuff would be a little bit that way, with just race procedure stuff, the cockpits are way more in-depth than what I'm used to in anything that I race.
“In a stock car, I'm worried about turning on brake fans. If I don't, it's really not a big deal. In the Sprint Car I have a wing valve. Late models nothing. Midgets nothing.
“In an Indy car, you got I don't even know. You have boost, weight jackers, bars, all sorts of stuff that I want to be ready for and know when they tell me to do this or do that, I can be quick to it, not hesitate and give up something that might be crucial for the end of the race.
“As far as the driving, the driving part of it I think, hopefully that all will come naturally. I don't really know. I don't have any experience yet to even have an opinion on what it could relate to or if it is totally just different than anything I've been in.”
Larson is confident that he will understand the strategy involved in IndyCar because it’s a similar strategy that has been used in NASCAR in recent years.
“I feel like our NASCAR racing has trended a little bit closer to IndyCar style of strategy, with fuel savings, stuff like that,” Larson said. “I think I have more experience now than I would have had three years ago on that side of things.
“There's going to be a lot to soak in over the next year, and I look forward to the challenge.
“I love racing new vehicles to challenge myself and learn something new. I feel like ultimately it makes me a better race car driver.
“I think no matter the result throughout this whole experience, I think I'm going to become a better race car driver from it.
“So, I'm excited about all that.”