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Kyle Larson on Indy 500 experience: ‘Race day just sucked ... I didn’t really enjoy any of it’

INDIANAPOLIS – Realizing a dream to race in the Indianapolis 500 turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson.

Weather ruined any part of Larson’s chance to complete the “Hendrick 1100” as the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day since Kurt Busch in 2014.

But the weather forecast didn’t cooperate. When a lightning storm and heavy rain hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 11 a.m. ET, the start of the scheduled 12:45 p.m. race was delayed for four hours.

So much had gone into Larson’s first attempt at competing in the Indianapolis 500, it became the top priority of the day. NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon agreed because they had invested so much time, effort and resources into Larson’s Indy effort.

When Larson decided he would start the rain-delayed Indy 500, that meant he would not start the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Instead of starting the No. 5 Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet for the 400-lap NASCAR marathon, it was Justin Allgaier who would be in Larson’s stock car.

Instead of being overcome with the joy of racing in his first Indianapolis 500, Larson told NBCSports.com at the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration Monday night that he was overwhelmed with guilt.

He felt like he was letting down his entire Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team, as well as his strong legion of fans.

“It was going perfect until race day,” Larson told NBCSports.com. “That is what kind of gets me down.

“Race day just sucked. Honestly, yesterday sucked. I didn't really enjoy any of it.

“Hopefully we can get to do it again someday and really get to enjoy doing both races.”

There is a reason why so few drivers have tried to compete in two of the biggest races on earth on the same day. The Indianapolis 500 is known around the world and has more than a century of history and tradition.

The Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR’s longest race, one of its biggest events, and it is held in the center of the NASCAR universe in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It's difficult and I think it'd be easier to cope with if it was just a normal race day like normal events,” Larson said. “But when you've got two marquee events and one that impacts your season, it's tough to get over. But I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm grateful for even being able to have the shot to do it.

“Just wish the weather would have cooperated.

“I was just praying for an hour more of rain and it all would have been fine, but just didn't end up that way.”

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Larson believes one more hour of rain in Indianapolis would have rained out the Indy 500 and it would have been moved to Monday. He would have then left to compete the full distance in the Coca-Cola 600 and return to Indianapolis to run the 500-Mile Race on Memorial Day.

But with 347,000 fans jammed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, every effort must be made to run the Indy 500 on its scheduled date. Otherwise, many of the fans would have to leave heartbroken at missing their biggest day of the year (and one that they have spent so much money to be a part of).

By making the decision to complete in the Indy 500 even with a four-hour delay to the start of the race, Larson couldn’t escape the overwhelming feeling of guilt.

“I don't know if I ever quite fully got in the correct mindset,” Larson admitted to NBCSports.com. “I feel like I had a lot of weight on me and a lot of guilt of not being able to be in two places at one time.

“I just was never in the right mindset. I didn't enjoy anything about yesterday.”

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Not even the pre-race ceremonies, the drama, Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon, all the major executives from the team that were there and all the photos with the VIPs at his car that were taken on the starting grid in the moments before the race, could remove that dreaded feeling that was inside Larson’s soul.

“I just felt like we were all in a lose-lose situation with the weather and all that,” Larson said. “So, I'm really hopeful that, everybody there a part of it had a good time.

“Even though it's the biggest race in the world, it's hard to fully enjoy it when you know you're going to miss another one.

While Larson was feeling guilty, Gordon was feeling giddy.

As he walked on the starting grid to Larson’s car before the Indy 500, he told NBCSports.com that he had “goosebumps.”

“This is so cool and so emotional, and I know it’s going to be even more emotional once the pre-race ceremonies start,” Gordon said. “I’ve had goosebumps being at the Indianapolis 500 on race day and I know there are more to come.”
Larson had a near-flawless two weeks leading into the 108th Indianapolis 500. He qualified fifth after making the Fast Six in qualifications and never really turned a wheel wrong in practice or time trials at Indy.

He adapted to the high speeds quickly. He signed countless autographs and posed for numerous photos. He did more media interviews and personal appearances in two weeks than for most of a NASCAR Cup Series season.

Larson was a perfect ambassador at the Indianapolis 500, representing both NASCAR and the grass roots, dirt track, sprint car crowd.

That was enough for him to win the 2024 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after finishing 17th. He led four laps and was a contender for a top-five finish but was penalized for speeding on pit road during a pit stop on Lap 131. That put Larson down one lap, but he was able to battle his way back to the lead lap and finish all 200 laps of the Indianapolis 500.

“The experience over these last couple of weeks is unlike anything I ever got to experience before,” Larson said when accepting the Indy 500 ROY award Monday night. “The fan support was incredible to me. I felt like a fan favorite from the start.

“Having Rick Hendrick here was amazing. I just wish the whole plan would have gone better.”

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Larson admitted he checked his phone every two minutes for weather updates.

“That was stressful for me,” he said. “Everybody got to run one race and I was trying to run two.”

Checking the weather continued for the rest of the day.

After he finished the Indianapolis 500 at 7:45 p.m., he jumped into a black SUV parked on pit road along with other key Hendrick Motorsports executives. The SUV took him to a helicopter in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield, then to a private jet at the Indianapolis Airport that took him to Concord Regional Airport a few miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Another helicopter ride to CMS and Larson had arrived at the NASCAR race at 9:13 p.m. ET.
He was ready to reclaim his Chevrolet from Allgaier and finish what was left of the Coca-Cola 600.

But 10 minutes later, the race was red flagged for rain.

“We could see the weather was coming. And I was just hoping it was going to get there before halfway so that the race wouldn't be official," Larson said.

“We got there just in time for the rain and thought they would call it pretty quickly. And then when they did it and they started drying the track, I got really hopeful again. My mood kind of swung to finally being happy. I was just kind of getting ready to go. I knew we had 150 laps left in the race, and I knew I would have plenty of time to get to the front. I knew my race car was going to be fast, and then I'm looking at the track, and it’s probably 80 percent dry and it didn't seem too long until it could be ready to go.

“Then they shocked us all and called it official. It killed whatever good mood I had.”

There was still disappointment on Larson’s face as he returned to Indianapolis on Monday to collect his winnings for the 500.

He credited Arrow McLaren sporting director and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, for helping him adapt to the No. 17 Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet so quickly and smoothly.

“Tony Kanaan was such a great asset to me,” Larson said. “It made the experience and the transition smooth. I hope to do it again someday.”

Next year?

“I hope so,” Larson said. “The way the day went yesterday, it might take some convincing to let me do it again.

“Maybe Roger Penske can order up some better weather.”

Larson didn’t get to accomplish his dream of completing all 1,100 miles in the “Hendrick 1100.” In fact, he only completed 500 because he never got to run a lap in competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But he did help his father, Mike, realize his dream of seeing his son race in the Indianapolis 500.

“Ever since this deal got announced, I knew how excited my father would be,” Larson said. “He had a great time over these last two weeks. He got to meet his hero, Mario Andretti, on the grid yesterday.

“He was so happy; he was crying a lot. Getting to see his child, who worked so hard and put so much time and effort and energy to get in this position of the top of North American Motorsport and see his child in the Indianapolis 500.”

“It meant more for me to race it for him than it did for myself.

“I hope and pray that I get another opportunity.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500