(PENSKE ENTERTAINMENT CORP PHOTO BY CHRIS OWENS)
Multi-talented racecar driver Kyle Larson had heard the same advice many times during his racing career before he took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Thursday for his Indianapolis 500 rookie test.
Larson, 31, had sat through a briefing with the Arrow McLaren team, including team sporting director and 2013 “500” winner Tony Kanaan. Larson was preparing to pilot the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet for his first laps ever in an IndyCar. The amount of info at that meeting was mind-boggling with all the intricacies of driving an IndyCar at more than 200 miles per hour.
As Kanaan explained, the driver has a steering wheel with two dozen buttons on it, a weight-jacker, front bar and rear bar adjustments, and telemetry info.
Larson, a throwback to the barnstorming open-wheel drivers of the ‘50s, has driven practically every type of racecar with four wheels but nothing like an IndyCar.
After the team briefing, Kanaan and Larson were together in the team’s driver lounge when Kanaan told him they were trying to give him too much information.
“Don’t worry about that, just enjoy the racetrack,” Kanaan told the 2021 NASCAR Cup champion who won the NASCAR Cup race Sunday at Las Vegas to qualify for the Final Four in this year’s title chase.
Larson is attempting to become the fifth driver in motorsports history to do “The Double” on May 26, 2024, by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Cup Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He is backed in his attempt by legendary team owner Rick Hendrick, who hired Larson in 2021 after serving a one-year NASCAR suspension. All Larson did then was win 10 Cup races and the NASCAR Cup championship.
In 2020, Larson barnstormed while serving a one-year NASCAR suspension and won more than 40 races, including the Chili Bowl, Indiana Midget Week and Pennsylvania Speedweek championships. He also has won the BC 39 midget car race on the quarter-mile IMS dirt track, and the Knoxville Nationals.
His rookie test Thursday would be a challenge in a vastly different racecar. His NASCAR Cup Chevrolet No. 5 is powered by a normally aspirated 358-cubic inch V-8 that produces 670 horsepower and weighs 3,200 pounds; the IndyCar is powered by twin-turbocharged 134.25-cubic inch V6 that produces 700 horsepower and weighs 1,655 pounds.
Kanaan, Rick Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon, and Hendrick had great confidence in Larson, who proved them right. The rookie test consists of 10 laps, 205-210 mph; 15 laps, 21-215; and 15 laps, 215 or above. Larson covered 72 laps with a fast lap of 217.898 mph.
“It was fun, and mostly what I anticipated, in a way,” Larson said later with Hendrick, Gordon, and Kanaan in an IMS press conference. “The speed and the grip thankfully didn’t feel scarier than I thought it might.”
Larson revealed that the car pulled to the left on the straights more than he expected.
He later had difficulty on his pit stops by accidentally hitting the pitlane speed limiter that was next to the first-gear shifter in the cockpit. A quick-fix for Larson will be to move the limiter button to the front of the steering wheel.
Pointing out the challenge of the slower speeds, Larson acknowledged, “Maximizing the apron, braking for pit road, stuff like that, is stuff I’ll have to really focus on and work on, maximizing potential. Overall, it was a great day.”
Expressing confidence, Larson said, ”I think me even just feeing the car today, like it feels so stuck. I can tell where your confidence could get too high, then you’re back into the wall the next corner. I’m sure I’m going to be able to soak in more and more information now that I got to drive the car once.”
Indeed, this is a unique team with the experience that Gordon, Kanaan, and team owner Hendrick have enjoyed at the Speedway. Doing “The Double” is something Gordon missed during his NASCAR career with Hendrick.
“My dreams came true in the inaugural Brickyard 400, racing here in a stock car,” Gordon said. “When Kyle came onboard, he made it clear this is something he’d like to do. I got excited about that … I’m equally excited to be a part of it in the capacity that I am, see it, hear about it through Kyle’s eyes and experience.”
Kanaan fully realizes Larson’s multiple driving talents.
“Out of his generation, it’s the best I’ve seen,” said Kanaan, who is retired as a driver. “He’s a complete driver. He’s just one of the best race car drivers in the world right now.”
And Hendrick, who has been reluctant to see his drivers race outside of NASCAR, has changed his mind with Larson.
“This is a big deal for us and the company, everyone involved,” Hendrick said. “We want to do it right. We don’t want to come up here and stub our toe. We know how hard it is. This is very, very important to us.”
NTT IndyCar Series regulars Tom Blomqvist of Meyer Shank Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Marcus Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist also completed their Indy 500 rookie tests last week.
John Andretti, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and Kurt Busch are the previous drivers who completed “The Double” in the “500” and Coca-Cola 600. Stewart had the best finishes of sixth in the “500” and third at Charlotte. Andretti’s double was partially backed by sponsor Jonathan Byrd of Greenwood in 1994. Andretti was 10th at Indy but encountered engine failure after 220 laps at Charlotte.
Larson expects to return for the open test in April at IMS before practice and qualifying in May. And then, he expects to race 1,100 miles on the same day at IMS and into the night at Charlotte.
(PENSKE ENTERTAINMENT CORP PHOTO BY CHRIS OWENS)