INDIANAPOLIS – As the CEO of McLaren Racing (and overseeing Arrow McLaren), Zak Brown travels to some of the most exotic and cosmopolitan cities on Earth.
From Barcelona, Spain to Montreal, Quebec. From Sao Paulo, Brazil to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain.
Of course, there is this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix in one of the richest principalities on the planet on the streets of Monte Carlo.
SUNDAY’S INDY 500: Details, schedules and how to watch the race on NBC, Peacock
BACK IN THE RACE: Graham Rahal will replace the injured Stefan Wilson
But this Sunday, there is only one place Brown wants to be, and that is in the capital city of the Hoosier State. Indianapolis, Indiana, also known as the “Crossroads of America.”
“The Indianapolis 500 is as special as it gets,” Brown told NBC Sports. “That’s my youngest memories of the sport. The Indianapolis 500 is a big deal. To go with a chance to win after we came close last year is really exciting.”
The McLaren name is legendary at the Indianapolis 500 dating all the way back to when its founder, Bruce McLaren of Auckland, New Zealand, arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1968.
McLaren did not make the Indy 500 field that year but returned in 1970 with Gordon Coppuck’s curvy creation, the M15. Driver Chris Amon did not like oval racing and decided not to compete at Indy. Denis Hulme was injured in a fire in practice.
Replacement drivers Peter Revson and Carl Williams competed in the race with Williams finishing ninth.
Shockingly, McLaren was killed just a few days after the Indianapolis 500 in 1970, but the team regroups under the leadership of Teddy Mayer.
The M16 arrived in 1971 and the speeds at the Indianapolis 500 dramatically leaped. Revson won the pole, breaking the previous track record by nearly 10 miles per hour – 178.696 miles per hour.
Penske Racing was a McLaren customer and in 1972, the team won the first of its record 18 Indianapolis 500s in 1972 in the McLaren M16B.
“Roger Penske has a long history with McLaren,” Brown said. “He raced the Zerex Special. I have huge admiration for Roger Penske. What an impressive guy. He wants to win Le Mans this year and the Indianapolis 500 this year.
“That is why the guy is so special.”
Johnny Rutherford scored the first and second of his three Indianapolis 500 wins with McLaren, winning in 1974 and 1976. He drove Jim Hall’s Chaparral to the win in 1980.
This year’s Arrow McLaren IndyCar team features four drivers in the May 28 107th Indianapolis 500.
Felix Rosenqvist starts on the outside of Row 1 in the No. 6 Chevrolet after qualifying with a four-lap average of 234.114 miles per hour in Sunday’s Fast Six qualifications for the Indy 500 Pole. Rosenqvist finished fourth in last year’s 106th Indy 500.
Pato O’Ward starts in the middle of Row 2 in the No. 5 Chevrolet with a four-lap average of 233.158 mph. O’Ward finished second to Marcus Ericsson in last year’s Indianapolis 500.
Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport as a rookie in 2016. He starts inside Row 3 in the No. 7 Chevrolet. He finished fifth in the 2022 Indy 500.
Tony Kanaan is the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and will conclude his IndyCar Series career in Sunday’s race. He starts on the outside of Row 3 in his first and last start for Arrow McLaren after qualifying with a four-lap average of 233.076 mph in the No. 66 Chevrolet.
He was third in last year’s Indianapolis 500 when he drove for Chip Ganassi Racing.
The liveries on three of the four cars celebrate McLaren’s “Triple Crown” victories in the Indianapolis 500. Rossi’s car pays homage to Rutherford’s 1974 Indy 500 win in the M16C. Rosenqvist car represents McLaren’s Formula One win at Monaco in the MP4-2 in 1984 with driver Alain Prost.
O’Ward’s all-black car pays tribute to the 24 Hour of Le Mans winner, the F1 GTR in 1995 with JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas, and Masanori Sekiya in McLaren’s first attempt at the endurance race.
“It’s really cool to see it come to fruition,” Brown said of the liveries. “The idea was developed last year by our marketing team. The cars turned out spectacular. It’s really cool.”
The McLaren name represents history in international auto racing. Zak Brown, however, is interested in McLaren’s future.
It took some valuable lessons from the past, however, to prepare Brown and McLaren for success in both the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar.
Brown shocked the motorsports world in 2017 when he announced then McLaren driver Fernando Alonso would skip the Grand Prix of Monaco to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
It was a combined effort with Andretti Autosport, and it captured much attention.
The two-time Formula One World Champion qualified fifth and led 27 laps before his Honda engine blew up with 22 laps remaining.
Alonso and McLaren did not compete at Indianapolis in 2018 but returned in 2019 with its own effort.
It was an abysmal failure as Alonso was bumped out of the starting lineup by Kyle Kaiser in the Last Chance Qualifier.
“In 2017, it was pretty much an Andretti team,” Brown said. “In 2019, it was a disaster. I learned a lot from that. I learned more from what I wanted to do in IndyCar in 2019 than I did in 2017.
“It was an embarrassing, but good, learning experience.”
Leaving the Indianapolis 500 in 2019 without making the starting lineup was a humbling experience. But it made Brown and McLaren more determined to do it the right way when they would return in 2020.
“There was definitely a lot of lessons from 2019 so there was a lot of benefit from that failure that make us a better race team today,” Brown admitted. “That was the worst racing experience of my life and the most proud of how we recovered from that. I look back at that and don’t have bad memories because I think of all the good that came from it.
“I learned how to get a steering wheel.”
Brown wanted to partner with an existing IndyCar Series team. Originally, he tried to join forces with Andretti Autosport, but Honda would not allow it because of some comments made by McLaren and Alonso over its lackluster Formula One engine.
Brown was able to find a partner with Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. They joined forces to create Arrow McLaren SP at the end of 2019.
Over the next two years, the team was competitive, but Brown had bigger plans for the operation. He eventually purchased the majority of shares from Schmidt and Peterson to create what is now essentially a McLaren-operated team.
At this year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren has four great shots at winning the world’s biggest race.
“I’m very excited where the team is,” Brown said. “We started with a great foundation, a small racing team with great people. Our job was to build it out, give them the resources and the tools they need to do what they are doing, which is putting cars on a regular basis at the front of the field. I’m very excited. It’s been a journey.
“Now, to have a team that is competing for the championships and four cars that have a shot at winning, unfortunately there are 15 other cars that have a shot at winning.
“But, yeah, we’re strong.”
The two most successful and powerful teams in IndyCar are Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. With an impressive start to the 2023 season, Arrow McLaren isn’t too far behind, serving notice that it is a power team in the making.
“We’re knocking on the door,” Brown said. “They have championships; we don’t. It’s early days.
“I also don’t understand why Andretti isn’t frequently often mentioned in the mix. Although they don’t have the same amount of championships, they are a threat to win every weekend.
“We are one of the teams that when everyone shows up, we’re in the conversation with the Penskes, the Ganassis, the Andrettis and other teams.
“We are in the conversation.”
Brown is from Los Angeles, California and attended what was then the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach when he was 16. He became hooked on auto racing and wanted to become an IndyCar driver.
So, he sought out one of the best of all-time, a driver that was still winning races at that time.
It was Mario Andretti.
“It was 1987 and it was short and sweet conversation,” Brown recalled. “I was quite intimidated.
“I asked him how do I get started in racing? He told me go-karting. That was the extent of the conversation. There happened to be an ad in the race program, which I still have, for Jim Hall Karting.”
Brown succeeded in becoming a race driver, and even teamed up with a young driver who would eventually become an Indianapolis 500 winner.
“I was Tony’s teammate in Holland in 1994 and he didn’t speak a word of English,” Brown recalled. “It was, ‘Me. Want to go. America.’ I asked what do you want to do in America? He was like, ‘What?’
“He didn’t speak English.
“We have a great photo of he and I standing side-by-side in our race suits. He still fits in his. I don’t fit in that suit any more.
“I’ve known him since the early 1990s.”
Brown was there for the beginning of Kanaan’s racing career, and on Sunday he will be the team owner for the final race of Kanaan’s IndyCar career.
“I’m bookending TK,” Brown said. “I never thought about it that way.
“I think TK can win this Sunday. We wouldn’t put him in the car if we didn’t think he had a chance to win the race. I don’t think he would have driven for us if he didn’t think he had a chance to win the race.
“He had a great race last year. Helio Castroneves won not long ago. Tony’s fitness is second to none in the paddock. I think he is going to be very competitive.
“We are expanding so it was important we brought in experience. Next year, we have NASCAR’s Kyle Larson and this year, we wanted experience on the track and off the track. We will be in a better position next year to take on Kyle, who will need an education around the Indianapolis 500. That would have been too much for the team this year.”
It was early in Brown’s career that he showed a flair for marketing and sales. He opened the largest motorsports marketing agency in the world and moved to the Northwest Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville, Indiana.
Just Marketing, Inc. (JMI) did business in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One. As his reputation grew, he helped broker Liberty Media’s purchase of Formula One.
McLaren’s board of directors was impressed by the ambitious American and he eventually became the team’s CEO.
The McLaren influence since taking over the team has been impressive. Schmidt and Peterson remain as ownership partners, but Brown is the man charting its course.
One of the biggest moves was hiring Gavin Ward as Arrow McLaren’s Racing Director and Brian Barnhart as the team’s General Manager.
Ward’s influence on the team has been dramatic.
“Gavin Ward is doing an excellent job,” Brown said. “We are seeing his engineering influence. That’s what we brought him in for to make the racing team better, not just from leadership, but a technical standpoint.
“It wasn’t easy getting O’Ward. Fortunately, he was out of contract but there is usually a tail with a non-compete clause, so it was six months before we got him in.
“We knew of him from Formula One with Red Bull, and he did a great job in IndyCar with Penske. He got his education at Red Bull and Penske. That’s about as good an education as you can get.
“It was a combination of who he is, his background, who he worked for, had Formula One knowledge and he knew what the best IndyCar team looked like, that in addition to him made him very attractive to us.”
Ward has taken an impressive collection of young drivers to create a powerful trio of racers for the full NTT IndyCar Serie season.
“Our drivers have a lot of similarities, but there are things they like differently in the car,” Brown said. “Pato has grown up with our car and the way it drives. Felix was very quick with another team and felt that car was more compliant. That is some of the same feedback we had from Juan Pablo Montoya. We try to give our drivers a more drivable, predictable car.
“All three drivers are very capable.
“Our expectation with Alex is he would be as fast as the car we give him. He is very experienced. He is very focused. I’m not surprised he came out of the gates strong.”
With the addition of Kanaan, there are four Arrow McLaren drivers in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Brown, admitted, however, that there could be four cars that compete in the entire NTT IndyCar Series season soon.
“The fourth car is a discussion,” Brown said. “There is not the Leaders Circle, so that is a consideration. We want to make sure we have three competitive cars before we consider a fourth car, but it is a conversation.
“Felix would definitely have a shot at that (the fourth car). He needs to win races.
“Last year, he showed us the speed and the consistency, but not yet at the front, front. Now, he has come out the strongest from a consistency standpoint.
“He needs to hang with Pato and Alex.
“Last year was unique and we already know next year’s plans. It’s a question of how we build on next year’s plan, but we are well ahead of where we were last year.”
Currently, Arrow McLaren is working out of the cramped race shop that was used by Schmidt Peterson Racing. A lavish, Formula One-style racing shop is in the planning stages, but Brown said it wouldn’t be ready until late 2025.
“The shop is not ideal,” Brown said. “We are fixing that problem, but it’s going to take a couple of years. We are managing. It’s one of the things where we discuss doing a fourth car, but doing it in our current facility, is next to impossible.”
At 51, Brown still dreams big. It is obvious that McLaren has raised the level of competitiveness in IndyCar.
More importantly, it just feels right to have McLaren at the Indianapolis 500
“One hundred percent. It feels very special,” Brown said. “There are a lot of fans around that are McLaren fans. People enjoy McLaren Racing.
“I feel very welcomed. I think McLaren has great history in America having down Can-Am and IndyCar. It’s one of our biggest markets for automotives. I believe we are a global, international brand that is welcomed everywhere.
“I don’t feel like we are foreigners sitting here.”