Kyle Larson believes he is ‘finally ready’ to take on the Indianapolis 500


INDIANAPOLIS – It was pouring at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series officials had already called off the remainder of last week’s Indianapolis 500 Open Test by 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time because of the rain. But Kyle Larson was still at the Speedway, in his Arrow McLaren/Hendrick Motorsports driving uniform completing some photo shoots and a few other off-track obligations.

As he sat in the Rick Mears Suite in Legends Row across from the Trackside Garages for an exclusive interview with NBCSports.com, Larson saw the photos of the legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner that hang from the wall.

Both are from California, and both have become tremendous racers. Mears grew up in Bakersfield, California and began his career as an Off-Road Racer — a member of the famed “Mears Gang” that also included his older brother Roger.

Larson is from Elk Grove, California and his racing prowess began in fast, high-powered, open-wheel dirt and sprint cars before his career path took him to the NASCAR Cup Series.

Mears and Larson are also two of the least pretentious racers in a sport where ego is essential to success.

Even in a crazed NASCAR world where fans know all the drivers, as well as the crew chiefs and pit crew, Larson can eat dinner with his family in restaurants, often unnoticed.

At 72, Mears is still as cool as anyone who ever raced. At 31, Larson has already won the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship and is one of the most active racers in North America. When he isn’t driving his NASCAR Sprint Cup Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports on Sundays, he is often driving a dirt car or a sprint car during the week in the High Limit Series, the World of Outlaws are any other race track under the lights across the United States.

This year, Larson is attempting to compete in the biggest, grandest, most historic race of them all – the Indianapolis 500.

It’s been a dream most of his life, and an even bigger dream for his father, Mike, to see his son compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Larson’s first recollection of the Indianapolis 500 was watching the race on television as a youngster with his father.

He always had like an Indianapolis 500 T-shirt. That was probably his favorite T-shirt he wore.

“For me as a kid, I always understood and figured my career trajectory was not going to go the IndyCar route,” Larson told NBCSports.com. “But I’ve always known that my dad has liked IndyCar more than NASCAR. Because of that, that’s also made me want to compete in this event someday to make him proud and get to see his kid compete in the biggest race in the world and his most favorite race in the world.

“It’s going to be special to have my family here. I was texting my dad a little bit last night, too. You can just tell he’s excited about the whole the whole thing.”

Larson is also continuing a California racing legacy of great drivers with diverse backgrounds competing in the Indianapolis 500.

From Fresno’s Bill Vukovich, a back-to-back Indianapolis 500 winner in 1953-54 who was killed while leading the race in 1955, to Torrance’s Parnelli Jones, the 1963 winner who won in every type of race car he ever drove including four NASCAR Cup Series wins in just 34 starts. Jones also won six IndyCar races and 12 pole positions, 25 midget car feature wins in occasional races between 1960 and 1967, 25 career sprint car wins and seven Trans-Am wins and a Drivers’ Championship in 1970.

Dan Gurney of Orange County, California represented the United States in the Formula One World Championship with four wins in 86 starts, but Gurney also won seven IndyCar and five NASCAR Cup Series races in his career.

The pinnacle for Gurney was co-driving the famed Ford Mk IV to victory in the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. His co-driver was AJ Foyt, who three weeks earlier had his third of four Indianapolis 500 wins.

From 1962 to 1970, Gurney started nine Indianapolis 500s, finished second in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Although he never won it as a driver, Gurney’s cars won the Indianapolis 500 three times with Bobby Unser in 1968 and 1975 and Gordon Johncock as the driver in 1973.

There were many great racers from California in the Indianapolis 500, but along came Mears in 1977. He was the co-Rookie of the Year along with Larry Rice in the 1978 Indianapolis 500. In the 1979 Indy 500, Mears drove to victory from the pole for Penske Racing – the first of his four Indy 500 wins.

Generations apart, Mears continues to represent greatness to racers from California that followed him to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“He was before my time really, so I didn’t follow it much back then,” Larson admitted. “But getting to come here last year I got to have a conversation with Rick because Jeff Andrews, who is President at Hendrick Motorsports, that’s his hero. It’s Rick Mears.

“I’ve known of his success here but getting to talk to him and seeing how nice he is and humble and how willing he is to talk to me and give me pointers when I’m going to be competing for a different team, I thought was really cool.

“And him being from California, too, is just great. I think there’s a lot of great talent from California, so I’m happy to represent that state and hopefully I can do the state proud as well as Rick.

“I’m sure will be cheering for me a little bit because I’m from California as well.”

Mears became the third driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times in his career with his final Indy victory in 1991. He retired from racing in 1992 but continues as a driver coach/consultant at Team Penske.

Larson’s first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 comes with a rival team at Arrow McLaren Racing. Larson’s NASCAR Cup Series team, Hendrick Motorsports, is the co-entrant.

Larson will also attempt to become the latest driver to run the “Double” – the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 500 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day. It’s billed as the “Hendrick 1100.”

During the rain-abbreviated Indy 500 Open Test, reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden of Team Penske was the fastest driver with a best lap at 228.811 miles per hour in the No. 2 PPG Chevrolet.

The second fastest was Larson, who was driving an IndyCar on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time since he completed his Rookie Orientation Program last October.

Larson’s best speed was 226.384 mph in the No. 17 Arrow McLaren/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but he admitted his speed was greatly aided from a “tow” by another driver in the draft.

“I got like a magic draft and laid a lap down,” Larson said afterwards. “I think I still have a lot of time to learn, so I’m excited about that.

“I saw Twitter was going crazy because, ‘Oh, Kyle Larson was second in his first IndyCar practice with people,’ but there’s a lot of people that weren’t drafting out there or didn’t have the draft that I had.

“I take the credit, but it’s really not a big deal, either.

“I think that was my first run on that set of tires, and there was a few cars in front of me, and I’ve been hearing about how the dirty air is and all that and how bad it is. In that run I was like, man, it doesn’t feel that bad. It didn’t feel that different from clean air, and I was wide open behind them, and it was no problem.”

When the annual Indy 500 Open Test was scheduled for April 10 and April 11, there was a potential 14 hours of track time available for the 34 car/driver combinations at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But this is Indiana, and this is April and the combination of the two often means rainy, cold conditions.

Instead of the regularly scheduled 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. of track time on April 10, the track was open for a total of 3.2 hours. That was still enough time for 1,327 combined laps by the 34 cars.

But part of that track time was for the Refresher Program for drivers that have not regularly competed in the IndyCar Series or for drivers to complete their Rookie Orientation Program, such as Nolan Siegel of Dale Coyne Racing.

Larson completed his ROP last October and was cleared to practice with the veterans.

When Thursday, April 11 dawned with heavy rain that was forecast to last all day, IndyCar concluded the test and the teams prepared to return to their respective race shops without any laps completed that day.

But even a little bit of time in an Indy car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was important to Larson.

“I know it was good to get out there yesterday,” he explained. “I really didn’t expect to get any track time this week, just with the way the forecast looked. I know it was good to get out there and getting just a little bit of traffic just to kind of, for me, to visually, see what an Indy car looked like from behind, and you kind of feel the runs that you get and feel the dirty air.

“I still don’t know what’s real or not out there, but I think once we get to the month of May, I’ll get a better idea of all that. But it was still good to get some sort of experience yesterday, first time on track with other cars.

“There was a lot to process, but I thought it went well.”

Because Larson is one of racing’s most versatile drivers, able to win in a NASCAR Cup Series car, or around the country in a Late Model dirt car or High Limits Sprint Car, he can quickly adapt to widely different racing machines.

That has helped him rapidly acclimate to an Indy car in impressive fashion.

“I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that ability, or the experience that I’ve had jumping in different types of cars and learning new vehicles,” Larson explained. “It probably just gives me more confidence knowing that I’ve been able to learn other types of cars quickly.

“I think had I just been strictly a pavement stock car racer trying to come run the Indy 500, I would probably be more stressed about things. But I’ve been pretty laid back with it all and excited for the experience, the opportunity and look forward to trying to learn another vehicle on an oval.”

When the late John Andretti became the first driver to attempt “The Double” by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day back in 1994, he said there was a dramatic difference in the way the Indianapolis Motor Speedway looked from the faster Indy car to the stock car.

He described it as two different race tracks.

Thirty years later, Larson believes the two forms of racing share more in common at the relatively flat, 2.5-mile, four-cornered oval.

“I think back when he was doing it the stock cars and Indy cars, I’m imagining were way different than what they are now,” Larson said. “At least on the NASCAR side of things I think it’s the new NextGen cars have really transitioned closer to an IndyCar style. The tires or the sidewalls are much shorter, independent suspension. All that stuff, I think, for me, anyways, makes it feel a little bit more similar.

“I feel like everything that I’ve felt, like at Phoenix, for instance, when I tested there, I thought the balance felt very similar to a Cup car around that place. The way that, the steering wheel felt in my hands, the way I felt the tires kind of load, stuff like that. The moments where you get maybe loose into the corner or off the exit. All that was not crazy different; you’re just going seven seconds quicker there, but even at that point, the car’s got grip, so like it doesn’t feel like you’re going seven seconds quicker.

“What I felt yesterday with the tires and all that is what I would expect my Cup car to feel like at 9 a.m., when there is lots of grip and you’re carrying a lot of speed. We wouldn’t run wide open in the stock car, but at least the way the tires and stuff load into the track, I think, would have felt very similar.

“I imagine it will probably be similar, too, when it gets hot and slicker and you’re struggling for grip a little bit more.

“I think our sports have transitioned to be more alike than they used to be.”

Because of their shape and design, NASCAR Cup Series cars no longer exceed 200 miles per hour. Indy cars, however, are back to exceeding 230 miles per hour in Indianapolis 500 qualifications.

In fact, last year’s four-lap average that won the pole for Alex Palou at 234.217 miles per hour was the fastest Indy 500 Pole Speed in history.

However, it was not the fastest qualification attempt in history. Arie Luyendyk ran a one-lap speed of 237.498 miles per hour and four-lap average of 236.986 mph in 1996, but that came after his initial effort of 233.390 mph was disallowed on Pole Day at the Indy 500 in 1996.

Despite Luyendyk’s record one-lap and four-lap averages came on Day 2 of qualifications, he started the race in 21st position as the fastest second-day qualifier.

As for Larson, his lap over 226 miles per hour on April 10 was the fastest speed he has ever driven in a race car.

“It is the fastest I’ve ever gone but it was weird because when I was in that little bit of a draft it didn’t feel like I was going that much faster than a lap by myself, I just had to shift gears,” Larson recalled. “Yesterday when I was by myself and say there was other cars in front of me like straightaway ahead when you see them turn in the corner, they’re going so fast, damn, it looks like way fast.

“But as you get close to people that sensation to me yesterday anyways slowed down.

“It’s different sensations. I’m still trying to figure it all out.”

So far, Larson has proven to be a fast learner. After concluding the NBCSports.com interview, Larson left for Texas Motor Speedway, where he won the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series race on Saturday and was a main contender for the victory on Sunday before a late-race spin thwarted his chances. He finished 21st.

It’s off to Talladega, Alabama this weekend for NASCAR’s annual “Thrill Ride” at the 2.66-mile, high-banked, restrictor-plate superspeedway.

Larson returns to the Indianapolis Motor on Tuesday, May 14 for the start of practice for the 108th Indianapolis 500.

That’s when the dream of racing in the Indy 500 will become more real, and he will be taking his NASCAR Cup Series team owner Rick Hendrick and five-time Brickyard 400 winner and Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon along with him for the greatest experience in racing.

Hendrick is a car dealer, and Larson recalled how he sold this idea to his NASCAR Cup Series team owner.

“It didn’t take much at all really,” Larson said. “I had a great season in 2021 and won a bunch of races and the championship. I felt like I had some leverage to ask to be able to do this. I wasn’t expecting him to be a part of it, but I was just hoping they would, bless me to go, give me permission to go race.

“When Rick wanted to be a massive part of it, then I thought that was really special.

“I remember mentioning it to him, some time at the end of the offseason of 2021. We were catching up for Christmas time, and I could tell when I first brought it up, he was not really that into it. But I really wanted to do it. So, I kept talking to Jeff about it. And Jeff knew how much I wanted to do it. I think he probably wanted me to do it as well.

“Jeff was like, ‘Let me just talk to Rick some and if we can convince him to make it like his idea, I think be a part of it.’

“It was probably midway through 2022 when he got on board and then the conversation started happening with different teams. It ended up towards the tail ended of 2022, getting this deal put together with Arrow McLaren, and then we announced it all in January of 2023, so it wasn’t much.”

From 2013 to 2020, Larson drove for Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR Cup Series team, which also owns the successful team in IndyCar.

Larson, however, didn’t believe it was the right time in his career to try to compete at the Indy 500.

“Even when I was at Ganassi that’s when it was the door was open, I just didn’t feel like I was ready to do this,” Larson said. “I think had I ever gone a Chip and said, ‘Hey Chip, I really want to do the Indy 500’ he would have made it happen.

“I just I was way younger, and I would not feel like I was ready for this.

“I feel like I’m ready to finally compete in this event.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500



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