Time is Kyle Larson’s best friend as he looks toward running the Indianapolis 500 in May 2024.
Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team have partnered with Arrow McLaren to field an entry for the 2021 Cup champion next year. As excited as Larson is to run the famed race, it is a long way off, making the first challenge a test of patience. But Larson also understands it’s a blessing to have over a year to prepare and be as buttoned up as possible for one of the biggest races in motorsports.
“If we were to put it together to run this year, I still feel like I would have been rushed to be prepared for May and feel like I could go and compete at a high level,” Larson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Yes, it’s a long way away from the event, but I like that a lot better because now I can have all this time to focus on doing the right things to train and get better. Not only physically but behind the wheel. Time on the simulator. Time behind the wheel of an actual IndyCar and hopefully, getting to do some testing before Indianapolis next year.
“I’m glad that it’s going to be next year’s Indy 500 and not this year’s.”
Larson has no IndyCar experience yet, but his ties to the 500 — and Indianapolis — run deep. He was acutely aware of the late Robin Miller’s relentless campaigning for him to take a place among the field of 33, but also forged his own ties with Indy via his dirt track exploits.“I’d known that (Robin) wanted to see me race at the Indy 500,” Larson said. “I know he’ll be watching down and cheering along, being a dirt guy that he’d followed ever since the beginning of my career.
“To do the Indy 500 is special because I did live in Indianapolis for a couple of years around the breakout point of my career that got me to NASCAR. So, 2011, 2012, I raced a lot of USAC races around the Indianapolis area. Indy’s always felt like another home to me; I’ve got a lot of friends there, friends who are like family. So that also adds to the prestige to me, being a local dirt track kid. Bryan Clauson competed in (the 500) a few times and I was always jealous of him getting those opportunities, and got to talk to him a lot about it. And that he competed in it while also doing the dirt stuff was, I thought, a very throwback thing to do. I’m glad I can add my name to another list with him on it, and hopefully I can do all the dirt track fans proud.”
Chevrolet’s new tech center is on the Hendrick campus and will be at Larson’s disposal. It’s still early in the process for anyone involved to know exactly what his preparation will look like this year, but simulator time is a given. Training for the physicality of running two races in one day and dealing with the demands of the two very different cars will be another factor.
“I obviously don’t have any experience (behind the wheel of an IndyCar), so I don’t know what to expect as far as physicality goes,” said Larson. “But I’ve heard that they are really physical. They don’t have any power steering, so I imagine the steering will be a lot heavier. Obviously, they’re a lot faster, so I would imagine you would feel some g-forces that I’m not used to.
“I’ll try to get as prepared as possible. I’m sure as it gets to the later portions of this year, Josh Wise will put together a (training) program for me to get physically prepared for it. With it being as far away as it is, it gives a lot of time to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible.”
According to McLaren’s Zak Brown, the long lead time between this week’s announcement and Larson’s car rolling out of Gasoline Alley next May is to allow he and the team to prepare as thoroughly as possible.
“We’re going to go maximum preparation, whether that’s in simulation, whether that’s driving the race car itself, whether that’s attending some IndyCar races and sitting in debriefs…,” Brown said.
“Obviously, Kyle’s primary program is his quest for another NASCAR championship so we need to work around what will be a very busy schedule, but we want to immerse Kyle (in IndyCar) and work together with the Hendrick organization to maximize performance on and off the track. We’re now working through; what is that, how many test days can we do, where shall we test. Chevrolet’s new tech center is around the corner from Hendrick Motorsport and that is going to be a benefit. One of the reasons for an early announcement and early commitment was for maximum preparation.”
Larson has long wanted to race at Indianapolis, and that interest eventually led to Brown making a phone call to the Hendrick headquarters in Charlotte. In the meantime, Larson wasted no opportunities to remind Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports vice-chairman Jeff Gordon of his Indy aspirations
“It’s obviously taken some time and I had to be patient through it all and still have to be patient to wait until next year’s Indy 500,” said Larson. “But we wanted to make sure the opportunity was exactly perfect and with the right organization, right team, and just the right circumstance.
“After mentioning it to Rick, I stayed out of it and let them work their magic.”
Hendrick, for his part, admitted he needed some convincing, but was coaxed over the line by the opportunity to partner with McLaren.
“A partner team like McLaren and Zak… that’s what you have to have, because I’m not interested in going if we’re not prepared and we don’t have a shot to be competitive,” he said.
“I get more excited about it every day. I wasn’t too excited about it in the beginning when we started to talk about it, but being able to partner with McLaren and Zak — a quality organization that’s in everything from Formula 1 to IndyCar — this is a great opportunity for us. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll probably feel like I did when I went to Daytona the first time I had an entry there, and I looked down the garage lane and I saw the Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson and all these guys and I thought, ‘Man, I shouldn’t be here.’ But to be partners with McLaren, that gives us a tremendous amount of comfort that we will have the best equipment and the best preparation, and we owe all that to the McLaren Group, because they’re the best. We’re just looking forward to seeing what it’s like.
“The Indy 500 is such a prestigious event in all of motorsports. I never thought I’d be there. I know it’s going to be special to be able to walk out onto the grid next year and be a part of it.”
Kurt Busch is the most recent NASCAR driver to run the double. Busch finished sixth at Indianapolis in 2014 before arriving in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, where a mechanical issue ended his race early.
Larson will be the fifth driver to attempt the double.