NASCAR champ Kyle Larson visits Indy 500 practice in prep for Arrow McLaren bid in 2024


INDIANAPOLIS – When Kyle Larson competes in the 108th Indy 500 in 2024, he will be living out a dream for more than just the driver.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion also will be fulfilling a lifelong dream for his father, Mike.

“Being able to compete in this event, I think it really more than anybody makes my dad really proud,” Larson said Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “That’s something that’s special to me.

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“There is definitely no bigger race to him than Indy 500. I know he’s wanted me to do it for a very long time. It’s going to be really special to see him kind of see me during driver introductions and stuff like that.

“He’s a crier, so he’ll probably not even be able to watch the race because he’ll have tears in his eyes the whole time. That’s the thing that’s most special to me at this point, knowing I’m in the Indy 500 is making him proud.”

While Larson’s father Mike is likely to shed tears of joy, five-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon will be beaming with pride that Larson will get a chance to experience one of the Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman’s lifetime dreams.

Although Gordon is from Vallejo, California, his family moved to nearby Pittsboro, Indiana when he was just 13 years old so that he could compete in the United States Auto Club (USAC). At that time, USAC did not require its drivers to be old enough for a driver’s license in the state, so Gordon could drive race cars in Indiana, but have to wait until they were 16 to drive a passenger car on the road.

Gordon’s career path was set for the Indianapolis 500 and his favorite driver was Rick Mears, the third driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times in his career.

“Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears were my heroes,” Gordon said Thursday on pit lane during Indianapolis 500 practice. “Rick Mears was always my guy. I remember coming here as kid and hanging over the rail in the Tower Terrace seats behind the pit area to get Rick Mears’ autograph.

“They didn’t have Sharpies back then, so that autograph on the T-shirt has faded, but it meant a lot to me as a kid.

“This brings back a lot of memories as a kid, but I never got to experience running in the Indianapolis 500.”

Gordon won five Brickyard 400s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and drove the Pace Car for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

His friend and former Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson competed in last year’s Indy 500.

But Gordon never got the opportunity to experience the thrill of being one of the 33 drivers in the world’s biggest race on Memorial Day Weekend.

After that, Gordon was full speed ahead with one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history. He won four NASCAR Cup Series championships and 93 Cup Series victories.

During that time, racing in the Indianapolis 500 was just a dream to Jeff Gordon.

“I don’t know if really the right opportunity or it ever became serious enough after that to become a reality,” Gordon recalled. “To me, this is equally as exciting because, one, I sure as heck right now don’t want to drive into turn one at 238 miles, whatever they’re running (smiling), but Kyle does. Kyle is capable of it.

“The fact that Rick Hendrick 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. I think there’s crossover we can learn from one another.

“I’m 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.

“I don’t want to do it now, but at the right time I would have loved to. I’m really excited he gets this chance to experience what was a dream of mine. We’ve seen Kyle do some incredible things in different types of race cars and I think he is going to do well.”

This wasn’t a day trip to the Indianapolis 500 for Larson and Gordon; it was actually a fact-finding mission as they spent the day with Arrow McLaren to see how the team operates at the Indianapolis 500.

Next year, Larson will drive for the team in the 108th Indianapolis 500. In 2023, the team’s three regular drivers are Pato O’Ward, 100thIndianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist. An extra car is entered in this year’s Indianapolis 500 for 2013 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Tony Kanaan.

“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,” said Gavin Ward, Arrow McLaren’s Racing Director. “I think 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.

“Early on in the conversations about this is a possibility, and really just the concept of running an extra car regularly at the 500, I said, ‘Well, if you gave me Kyle Larson to put in it, I’d definitely want to do it’ was my answer.

“Little did I know that was even a possibility.

“I was just joking. We’ll find a way to make it happen if you can do that.

“Lo and behold, here we are.”

Ward said the team still was exploring whether Larson would test before next year’s Indy 500 Open test. Larson will be in the Chevy IndyCar simulator (which actually is next door to Hendrick Motorsports’ Concord, N.C.-based headquarters).

“I think it’s more about probably some of the basic stuff, just getting familiarized with the steering wheel, the adjustments in the cockpit, all that sort of stuff,” Ward said. “Gives you a heads up on some seat fit work. Realistically you have to run these things, run them in traffic. That’s what everyone is doing out here. That’s the most important side of it.

“But I do think the program we’re running with Tony Kanaan this year, his involvement with the team, it sets us up in a good way to help. Tony and Kyle have raced together before. That’s a good relationship. I think he’s a good reference here to try and help Kyle learn the ropes here.”

Gordon is impressed with the way Ward runs the team and equally impressed with the racing team that is McLaren CEO Zak Brown has created after he purchased Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Although former driver Sam Schmidt and Ric Petersen still have a small ownership stake, McLaren owns three-quarters of the racing team.

“It’s been a lot of fun working with Arrow McLaren, Zak Brown (McLaren CEO), Gavin, Ward (Arrow McLaren Racing Director) and his whole team to pull this off,” Gordon said. “I’m kind of glad that Kyle said, ‘This is something I’d really like to do one day. Do you think this is something that Mr. Hendrick and Hendrick Cars would want to support?’

“We’re happy that that’s all going to come true in 2024.

“I think for today, it’s such a different world. This car. I think as a driver, driving a race car is sort of natural of what you need to go fast, to compete. But you’re talking about Indianapolis at 230-plus miles per hour, what it takes to get comfortable, what kind of language there is for a driver of the types of things that they’re talking about versus a stockcar or a sprint car.

“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.”

Larson is the most versatile driver in racing today, winning in the NASCAR Cup Series and competing in everything from World of Outlaws Sprints to USAC Midgets to Late Model Stock cars.

The driver from Elk Grove, California will be 31 when he fulfills his dream of competing in the Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve obviously come here a lot in a stock car,” Larson said. “I lived in the area for a couple years. So, this place for a long time felt like home or a second home to me.

“In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world, so you want to be a part of the big ones. Hopefully someday be a winner of a big event.

“I look forward to it. Happy to be here today. Look forward to kind of taking in as much knowledge as I possibly can in a single day, just trying to better prepare myself for whenever I get behind the wheel.

“It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” Larson continued. “I wanted to be patient and wait for the timing to feel right. It feels right. Having Hendrick Motorsports be extremely supportive of it, supporting the efforts with Arrow McLaren, it’s something that I’m extremely excited about.

“To have Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon involved is important. Jeff kind of told me that I get to live out a dream of his. That’s really special also to me.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and six red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500