NASCAR’s Kyle Larson has short Indianapolis 500 opening practice day

INDIANAPOLIS – When 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson announced he would be competing in his first Indianapolis 500, he envisioned plenty of time racing around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway to prepare himself for the 108th running of the grand spectacle on May 28.

So far, however, Larson’s track time has been miniscule, to say the least.

In April, Larson and the rest of the Indianapolis 500 competitors were part of a two-day Indy 500 Open Test. Because he had already completed his Indy 500 Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October, he was cleared to run with the veterans at the Open Test.

But this is Indiana in the spring and that means the constant threat of rain and inclement weather.

After a total of two hours of time on the track, most of that for rookie and refresher laps, Larson ran 47 laps as rain wiped out the remainder of the scheduled track time on April 10.

The next day was even worse, with steady rain leading to IndyCar canceling the remainder of the test at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Larson left that day with no worries. After all, Opening Day for this year’s Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The most versatile driver in American racing was assured of having plenty of time to learn the tricks and nuances of driving a high-speed Indy car.

Again, this is Indiana in the spring, when frogs rejoice.

And, again, it rained.

Shortly after 9 a.m. ET, the green flag waved for the start of practice for the 108th Indianapolis 500. But after 23 minutes and 37 seconds of green-flag running, rain began to fall at 9:26 a.m.

Nearly five hours later, IndyCar officials canceled the remainder of the session and revised Wednesday’s schedule from six hours of practice to eight beginning at 10 a.m. ET and running straight through to 6 p.m.

Larson ran just two installation laps on Tuesday in the No. 17 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren/Hendrick Motorsports. Because they were installation laps, his best lap was a low-speed run at 149.896 miles per hour.

IndyCar: 108th Running of Indianapolis 500-Practice
IndyCar: 108th Running of Indianapolis 500-Practice caught up with Larson shortly after the rain began to fall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday morning.

“This feels like a normal day for me here at Indy,” Larson quipped. “Friday doesn’t look great, but so far, the rest of it looks really good. I’m not too worried about it.

“Obviously, I would like to get a full day in today, but I know there's plenty of opportunity these next handful of days to get a lot of laps. I’m not too worried about it but would love perfect weather every single day.

“But we aren’t going to get that in Indiana.”

Larson knows plenty about Indiana and its duck-like weather, especially in May. The Elk Grove, California, native spent some of his formative years in Indianapolis when he was a rising star in the United States Auto Club (USAC) midget, sprint and Silver Crown divisions.

Rain is part of the program when it comes to the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Larson also isn’t worried because about 30 hours of practice time remains at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the rest of the week through qualification weekend, weather permitting, of course.

“I’ll take rain every day except for qualifying day and the Indy 500, so I don’t really care,” he said.

Because there was plenty of time to kill before IndyCar canceled the session, Larson was relaxed and could talk about a variety of topics.

He believes the Indy cars are easier to drive than he expected, but extremely difficult and complicated during the intensity of a race.

“I think by yourself, they're easy to learn but I think in traffic conditions and pit stops and restarts and all the other details to like be competitive and win, no, I think they are probably very difficult to learn,” Larson explained. “But if you are going to go out there and make laps by yourself, it's not that hard, but that's a small fraction of what it takes to be competitive in an Indy car.”

IndyCar: Firestone 600
IndyCar: Firestone 600

Rick Mears is an Indianapolis 500 legend and one of only four drivers who have won the big race four times in their careers. The others are AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Helio Castroneves.

Mears believes Larson will experience things in the race that he can’t prepare for in practice. That is where experience is vitally important.

“His big learning curve to me is going to be the race and dealing with traffic and turbulence,” Mears explained to “I've always said you could test for a week, and you could get in one race and halfway through the race, you've learned twice as much as you learned in a test in all the week of testing because you get put into situations that you would never get into in a test.

“You get moved up in the gray, get moved down over the apron, situations coming up that you just obviously wouldn't experience testing. That's going to be his learning curve the closing rate, the cars, that kind of thing. He's going to have some good equipment and he's a hell of a talent. He's a hell of a racer.

“I say you can win that race from any seat in the house. You know, you get a little lady luck, and everybody do their job right, you never know what the opportunity is going to be.

“But having that kind of experience to fall back on and talk to and run things by, it's all about learning curve and anytime you can steepen in that learning curve you're just that much better off. Tony Kanaan (Arrow McLaren sporting director), with all his experience and talent, things that he's gone through that's going to be a big plus for Kyle.”

Larson completed agreed when told of Mears’ assessment that he will learn more from the race than anything he does all month.

“Definitely, I think for sure,” Larson said. “I think you need to qualify good and then you'll be up in the front, 10 cars or so and then hopefully, I can be aggressive enough to keep that track position in the beginning and then just get learning very fast.

“I think, hopefully that's why I feel like with my experience of dirt racing and having to learn very quickly will hopefully benefit me a little bit. I know that practicing like this or whatever, it's nothing like the real thing.

“There will be a lot to learn when the green flag drops on race day at Indy.”

The 108th Indianapolis 500 will be the first time Larson has been involved in a three-wide start since he ran the Hut Hundred USAC Midget race at The Action Track in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2011.

“I'm sure it's nerve-wracking just under caution laps before the race,” Larson predicted. “I'm sure you are way more aware of your surroundings and in the distance, you're keeping between yourself and other people, when you are three-wide versus two-wide.

“I will be very alert trying not to eff anything up before the race even starts.”

NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400
NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400

A three-wide start may be new to Larson, but he is coming off a three-wide finish at Kansas Speedway when he won the AdventHealth 400 on May 5 in the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series history when he defeated Chris Buescher by 0.0001-of-a-second. Chase Elliott was third in the three-wide finish.

“I still just can't believe it at all,” Larson admitted. “Even if I were to finish second, I still can't believe I got to the point of being outside of him, how it all worked out, and then to just edge him out by an inch or whatever was incredible.

“The confusion that happened after the race immediately after the checkered flag adds to the craziness of the finish. It's pretty neat to be a part of the closest finish in NASCAR history and then it's extra special when you are the winner of it.

“It was a good race, a great race, from start to finish and then to cap it off for the close finish like that was pretty awesome.”

On Monday, NASCAR announced an “In-Season Tournament” that will be televised on Amazon Prime during the summer races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule beginning next season. The winner of the 32-driver bracket will win $1 million.

“I love it,” Larson said enthusiastically. “I don't really know a ton about it yet, but if it's anything like the Denny Hamlin bracket thing that he did last year, I think it'd be really fun. We had zero involvement last year, but it was still something that I paid attention to every week.

“Next year, having $1 million on the line, that’s for sure going to be a goal with before the season starts and something that you and your team strategize around and all that.

“It's going to be good. I look forward to it.

“The summer months gets stale. Not boring, but like it just gets repetitive. You lose some excitement. So, I think this bracket, or this whatever you want to call it, is going to add a lot of excitement and more storylines.

“So, I love it.”

Larson isn’t just a Sunday racer, however.

BC39 Kyle Larson IndyCar-com car Chris Jones
BC39 Kyle Larson IndyCar-com car Chris Jones

On Monday night at Kokomo Speedway in Kokomo, Indiana, Larson was competing in a High Limit Sprint Car Series race and flipped five times in a crash.

That foreshadowed a night he would like to forget.

“It was just a bad night,” Larson said. “Probably the worst night I think we've ever had, sprint racing with Paul Silva.

“I was disappointed. I didn't do a good job qualifying. I didn't execute good two laps and made a bad decision and then started seventh in the heat race, needed to get to fifth to transfer to the main. I was just desperate and overly aggressive and just kind of slid across too slow and kind of left him a decision to make. I just ran each of us out of room and flipped myself.

“Then I had to run the C main, and I thought four cars transferred, only two cars did. I finished third so I didn't transfer. End of the night. So is what it is, but I’ll try to be better next time.”

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who is part of the McLaren team at 87 years old because of his long and glorious career driving for McLaren in IndyCar, went to Kokomo to watch Larson.

The NASCAR star was impressed that a Hall of Famer such as Rutherford would drive the 65 miles north to watch him race in High Limit Sprint Cars.

“I mentioned it to him that I was racing, but I didn't think that he would go,” Larson said. “He must have caught up with (Indianapolis Motor Speedway president) Doug Boles or something later in the day. I don't know if they rode up together or what the deal was there, but that was really awesome to see him there.

“I feel bad because I was in a bad mood when I saw him. I literally just got done crashing and then they were there, and I wish I would have just had a better night.

“I'm sure he had a good time, but I know he would have rather seen me race than probably others.”

From NASCAR Cup Series races to High Limit Sprints, to the Indianapolis 500, Larson is going to be traveling all over the Midwest and the Southeast between now and the big day, May 26, when he attempts the “Hendrick 1100.”

Larson will become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race on the same day.

Just getting to all the points involved is a challenge, but Larson’s team has it handled.

“I don't think it's as crazy as what everybody thinks but it's the best part is I've got a team owner in Rick Hendrick that owns multiple aircrafts and multiple helicopters and can make stuff happen, so that makes everything a little bit simpler for me,” Larson said. “Hendrick Motorsports does everything above and beyond better than any other organization does so that makes things a lot more relaxing, I think, for me.

“So, a big thank you to Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Aviation and everybody apart of Hendrick Motorsports and Arrow McLaren for making things easy on me.”

Now, if only the reptile-like Indiana weather would cooperate, Larson might get a chance to spend a full day in his Indy car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500