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, four-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 four 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.”