When will Kyle Larson be in an Indy 500 car? Analysis, answers about his attempt at history
Kyle Larson will attempt to become the fifth driver to race the Indy 500-Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader, but there is something that will set this bid apart from the rest.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion will have more lead time and more powerhouse support than any previous candidate for “The Double.”
Larson announced Thursday he will attempt to make his debut in the 2024 Indy 500 in a Dallara-Chevrolet fielded by Arrow McLaren Racing and co-owned by Rick Hendrick.
The 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 will mark the IndyCar debut for Hendrick, the NASCAR Hall of Famer who fields the No. 5 Camaro driven by Larson in NASCAR’s premier series.
Hendrick brings four decades of experience the most successful team owner in NASCAR history, and Larson is one of the most talented stars he ever has employed on a driver roster that has included Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
But it’s his partner in the effort that has Hendrick believing Larson can make history next year.
“If you are a racer, it’s on your bucket list to be a part of and have an entry in the Indy 500,” Hendrick said. “That’s a huge deal. To have a partner or team to associate with like a McLaren and Zak Brown, that is what you must have. I’m not interested in going if we are not prepared and don’t have a shot to be competitive.
“I know it’s a tall order to talk about trying to win it, but every race I have ever seen Kyle in, and I look at the McLaren team and I know they are winners and Kyle is a winner. All of this is going to develop, but what I like about it is we’ve got a great team we are associated with.”
The next big steps will be plotted by McLaren, which has emerged as a strong championship contender in the NTT IndyCar Series the past two years and finished second with Pato O’Ward in last year’s Indy 500. McLaren also can lean on the technical knowhow from racing tentacles stretching into many other global series (including Formula One, Formula E and Extreme E).
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown is promising “max preparation” for Larson that likely will include having him in an IndyCar test for the first time by the end of 2023. He also can take advantage of time in Chevy’s IndyCar simulator (which is based in the Charlotte area, along with a new racing technical center in Concord, just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports).
While it might be unlikely to put him in an IndyCar oval race given his NASCAR conflicts (though the 2024 schedules for both series are months away from release), it wouldn’t be unfathomable to give him a shot at a track such as Texas Motor Speedway (which traditionally falls before Indy) if the stars somehow align.
Larson will need to complete the Rookie Orientation Program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it seems a given that he’d be on track whenever possible at IMS in 2024 (and perhaps earlier).
“We’re going to get him preparation, whether that is simulation, driving the car himself, attending some IndyCar races and sitting in debriefs,” Brown said. “Obviously, Kyle’s primary program is Kyle’s quest for another NASCAR championship, and we want to work around what will be a very busy schedule for him. We want to immerse Kyle and work together with Hendrick to maximize performance both on and off the track. We are now working through how many test days that includes and where we can test. Chevrolet’s new tech center is around the corner from Hendrick Motorsports. It will be a benefit.
“One of the reasons for an early announcement and early commitment was for maximum preparation.”
With nearly 18 months of lead time (Friday’s announcement came with the 108th Indy 500 days away) and the mighty resources of two esteemed organizations, Larson should have as good a shot at Indy as Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon and the late John Andretti – the last four drivers who attempted the NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader.
“I’m really excited,” Larson said. “This has been something I’ve dreamt about since I was a child before I was racing sprint cars. The Indy 500 has always been the most special race to my dad. I remember as a kid, he would say, ‘Someday, if you get the opportunity, you need to try and run the Indianapolis 500.’ I had to be really patient with it. Thankfully, patience has paid off.
“I feel like I’m in the best possible opportunity to run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without Rick Hendrick, Zak Brown, everybody at McLaren, Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick Automotive Group, this would not be possible. I’m very grateful for that and look forward to preparing. I’ve talked about it a lot. I didn’t want to do this if I was not in a great opportunity but had time to prepare. This definitely leaves plenty of time to get ready for it. I definitely have a shot to go there and do well.”
Here are answers to a few other pressing questions about Kyle Larson racing next year in the Indy 500:
Q: What will this mean to Larson’s legacy, especially if he’s able to pull off a stunning victory?
A: It’ll put him in the same conversation as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt (and ahead of Stewart, one of his idols) as one of the most versatile drivers of all time. Larson told NBC Sports midway through the 2021 season that “I’ve always wanted to be known as one of -- if not the greatest -- all-around race car drivers ever.”
Since then, he has added a Knoxville Nationals victory and a title in NASCAR’s premier series.
Asked Thursday by NBC Sports what an Indy 500 win could mean in his quest to be remembered as racing loyalty, Larson smiled broadly.
“I think that would help, for sure,” the Elk Grove, California, native said with typical understatement. “There’s a lot of drivers who I look up to that competed in a lot of different types of cars, won a lot of races and won the Indy 500. If I could do it -- me coming into run my first ever IndyCar race in the Indy 500 would be a tall task to ask for to win it, but that is why we are planning so far ahead -- and add my name to that winner’s list and the hopefully great legacy of mine as we get further on in my career.
“If I could win the Indy 500 at the age of 31 and have a lot of other races to win, that would take a big step towards it.”
Q: Would Larson attempt to race the Indy 500 more than once?
A: That would require another heavy lift of securing sponsorship, coordinating massive logistics and getting buy-in from two major teams.
But Larson said it’s not his style to do a one-off.
“If you look at all the types of stuff that I’ve done and the dirt late model years, when I get involved in something, I don’t want it to a one-and-done thing,” he said. “I take it seriously. I want to continue to compete in it and learn the craft. Every different type of race car I drive takes a different driving style and a different driving craft. The Indy car will be another one of those, obviously.
“We only have this one-year deal done, and we’ll see how it goes, but if we all enjoy it and have a good time and we all believe it was successful and want more of it, I would love to do it again. I don’t want to compete in the Indy 500 just to say I competed in the Indy 500. I want to compete to win. I want to win someday down the road.
“I’m still young. I’m only 30 right now. I feel like I’m in the prime of my career and while you are in that prime, you need to take advantage of it and compete in the big events you have a shot at winning. If you win it the first time, that might change things, but I would love to compete in it more than just next year.”
Q: Why are Hendrick and Larson so bullish on their chances of excelling with their Indy 500 debut?
A: In a word, McLaren.
Hendrick Motorsports has a record 14 NASCAR championships and 291 Cup Series victories, but its founder was effusive in his praise for McLaren and Brown, who has been instrumental in restoring the team to being competitive in F1 and spearheading its entry into IndyCar.
“I know full well what it’s like to step into an organization or racing series like NASCAR to compete,” Hendrick said. “It takes a lot of time. Any race team, it’s all about people. We know Chevrolet has a great product. I’ve never raced anything but Chevrolet. There is no way our organization could make this step without having a partner like McLaren. I’m in awe that I’m going to be mentioned in the same sentence with McLaren and Zak.”
“For me to have a chance to be a co-owner and bring HendrickCars.com to Kyle’s fans and our organization, I get more excited about it every day. I wasn’t too excited about it in the beginning but when we started talking about it, to partner with McLaren and Zak Brown and a quality organization in everything from Formula One to Indy, this is a great opportunity for us.”
Q: How did the deal come together?
A: Larson said he mentioned it to Hendrick during a conversation they had around Christmas 2021 (about a month after clinching his title at Phoenix).
Though Hendrick has permitted him to race dirt at his leisure, Larson still was surprised with how quickly receptive Hendrick was to the concept.
‘LIKE MY FIRST TIME AT DAYTONA:' Rick Hendrick on the road to his first Indy 500
But the first visit to the Indy 500 for Hendrick will dovetail nicely with his recent career expansion. The NASCAR icon has been a presence at the Rolex 24 and other IMSA races the past two years (as a prototype co-owner), and he will be heading to France in June for NASCAR’s Garage 56 project in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“It’s a bucket list,” Hendrick said. “I never thought I would be going to LeMans, either. It’s one of those deals that Kyle has been adamant about. He convinced me to let him run sprint cars.
“The Indy 500 is such a prestige event in all of motorsports. I never thought I would be there. It’s going to be special to walk out on the grid next year and be a part of it.”
Q: How will Larson get prepared to compete in 1,100 miles across Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway?
A: No one currently is more accomplished at jumping into any race car and succeeding than Larson, but he acknowledges this will be a steep hill to climb.
The horsepower-to-weight ratios alone will be challenging (a Cup car weighs roughly twice as much), much less the style of racing, racetracks and the duration. Between 500 miles at Indy and 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Larson likely would be in the car for close to 10 hours (with an hourlong flight in the middle).
Larson has a diverse background on dirt, but this won’t be the same as practicing a Cup car at Michigan and then hopping in a sprint car at Knoxville.
“Getting to run an Indy car and a Cup car in the same day will be two polar-opposite types of vehicles,” he said. “I enjoy a challenge, too. Fitness-wise, it will be a challenge but also adapting going back and forth between a car I’m not familiar with, but by then I will be more familiar with the Indy car.
“I feel like I have trained my body for this over the past six or seven years traveling around racing over 100 times a year. It’s been done by a handful of drivers. Tony Stewart was successful, and Kurt Busch did a really good job several years ago. I will study as much as I can, be as prepared as possible and rely on the people who have done it, too. I’m sure I will talk to Tony and talk to Kurt and anybody else I can that can offer any bit of advice on what to be prepared for. There are a lot of unknowns in the middle of the hectic week of racing and how to be prepared for that.
“Being as prepared as possible will be important. I’ll have a lot of people I can lean on for that.”
That starts with Hendrick, who has a fleet of jets that can ferry Larson whenever and wherever needed (by comparison, Busch had to broker a sponsor to help secure his travel for the last Double attempt nine years ago).
Gavin Ward, the racing director for McLaren’s IndyCar team, said the team also will focus on teaching Larson the lexicon and finer points of IndyCar setups.
“When learning any new race car, there will be learning the language how to set the car up, what the options are,” Ward said. “Knowing what we can tweak on an Indy car will be little bit of a technical learning exercise. I have no doubt Kyle will adapt to that, and car control will not be an issue.
“We have a really good group of people with a lot of experience bringing drivers up to speed at the Indy 500, which is a special task. We have done that before and I don’t think that will be a taxing task with Kyle.”
Q: Did McLaren consider fielding a car for Larson in this year’s Indy 500?
A: McLaren already has four announced drivers for 2023 – full-time drivers Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi will be joined by 2013 Indy 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan.
Kanaan is bringing NTT Data as a sponsor to help secure his ride, and Rossi will be in his first season at McLaren, so trying to shoulder bringing Larson up to speed would have been a big ask.
“Four cars is the right number for the Indianapolis 500,” Brown said. “We don’t want to have any compromise and put our best foot forward. It’s a big opportunity for Arrow McLaren to partner with Rick Hendrick’s organization and Jeff Gordon and have a driver of Kyle’s caliber. I think five cars is one too many.
“Also, bringing on a new driver this year in Alex Rossi, we wanted to make sure we continue to have a good Indianapolis 500. Another year of four cars will make us that much more prepared for when we bring Kyle on board in 2024.”
In a Friday morning interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive,” Larson also said he preferred having the extra time because he would have been “rushed” to try to race this year.
🗣️ "I'm glad it's going to be next year’s #Indy500."— SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch. 90) (@SiriusXMNASCAR) January 13, 2023
⏳ With 499 days to go, @KyleLarsonRacin told #TMDNASCAR he's happy to have extra preparation time for his @IndyCar debut with @McLarenIndyCar at @IMS.@TeamHendrick | @HendrickCars pic.twitter.com/dF9PEVRPSi