When Kurt Busch stepped out of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 1 Andretti Autosport Chevy nearly 10 years ago, the 2004 NASCAR Cup champ did so with a smile, a handshake to Michael Andretti and a belly full of uncertainty.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it this year, just with stamina and not being able to give my all to by team in Charlotte,“ Busch said that day. “I need to get more comfortable in an Indy car. A day like today, I’m white-knuckled. My hands were tense and firm, and that was only after 10 laps.”
It was 10 months before Busch made the commitment. For those two months in the leadup to the 98th running of the Indy 500, Busch became a leading headline. With a run to 6th-place as a lead-lap finisher and the eventual Rookie of the Year, Busch captured the moment at IMS, but nothing more than faint rumblings about a return followed.
Kyle Larson wants to do this differently.
If the next 16 months go according to plan, the 2021 Cup champ will spend loads of time in the IndyCar simulator at General Motors’ new technical center – conveniently just down the road from Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports home base in Concord, N.C. – carve out part of a race weekend to sit in on Arrow McLaren’s team debriefs, stand on the timing stand for on-track activity and hop in an open-wheel car for an oval test before 2023 closes. With such a long runway before what he called “the biggest race of my life,” Larson, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown and Larson’s NASCAR boss, Rick Hendrick, say plans are in store for “maximum preparation” that could give the 30-year-old a legitimate shot at winning his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2024.
And if Larson can’t manage to become just the fifth rookie to win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing since the end of World War II, don’t expect this to be it. All this preparation, the short track racing legend said, isn’t a three-hour bucket list experience to be checked off a list and then forgotten about.
“I think if you look at all the types of stuff I’ve done, most recently with the dirt late models now, when I get involved with something, I don’t like it to be a one-and-done thing,” Larson said Thursday following the joint announcement with Arrow McLaren that will include Hendrick as a co-owner on Larson’s Chevy Indy 500 one-off next year. “I want to take it serious. I want to continue to compete in it and learn the craft.
“I want to win (the Indy 500) someday down the road. I’m still 30 now, in the prime of my career, and while you are, you need to take advantage of it and compete in as many events you can go have a shot at winning,”
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After talking to the trio that, along with HMS vice chairman Jeff Gordon, helped make Thursday’s news a reality, it seems the runway for something more long-term than Busch’s solo attempt at the 500 may have been laid. The deal gives Hendrick, whose company, HendrickCars.com, will be featured as Larson’s primary sponsor, a role in this far larger than simply being the one to give Larson the OK. That hurdle, as the driver explained, was first cleared about a year ago near Christmas of 2021 when, during a call, Larson first truly planted the seed.
“I told him, ‘I really want to do the Indy 500 someday,’ and he was like, ‘Well let’s do it then!’” Larson said. As the months passed last year during his Cup title defense, Larson kept Gordon’s ear in hopes of the idea “not losing any momentum.”
“I didn’t want Rick to forget about it,” he continued. “And thankfully, he didn’t.”
The deal with Brown gives Hendrick his first entry into the 500 which, despite being NASCAR’s winningest team owner, will leave him feeling like he did when he arrived as a rookie IMSA team boss in the mid-80s.
“I thought, ‘Man, I shouldn’t be here,’” Hendrick remembers. “Zak and I have been friends for 25 years, and I never dreamed we’d be partners to go run the Indy 500, but I always wanted to partner with a premier team if we ever did. It’s going to be really exciting for our organization and our fans.”
But those that have followed Larson’s career know that wherever the fiercest racing competition is on any given weekend, Larson’s often not far away. An annual 100-race schedule that includes his three-dozen Cup races a year is what keeps him going.
Eighteen months ago, Larson had just won what, at the time, was one of the biggest races of life in the Knoxville Nationals, the premier date on the USAC National Sprint Car calendar. Instead of sipping a few beers until the sun rose, as is typical for the race field, Larson shared a quick, rushed toast with his fans outside the media center before being whisked off to a private jet that took him to Indianapolis.
“I haven’t really gotten to enjoy it. It’s all like a blur so far, and that makes the win a little bittersweet,” Larson told the media in Indianapolis that morning after four hours sleep. “But I think running all these races helps my confidence out a lot, and with that comes momentum. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m fresh whenever I get in a race car. My body’s just used to it, I guess.”
He’d go on to take 3rd in that day’s Cup race. Four days later on a quarter-mile dirt track built in Turn 3 of the IMS oval, Larson returned to his roots and took the BC39 crown in a performance that led track owner Roger Penske to tease the crowd, saying, “Maybe I can find a 500 driver out here tonight, what do you think? Give me a good name, will ya?”
Though it will ultimately take nearly three years from that night for Larson’s boyhood dream to become reality, he believes he’s ready for the moment. Should he start both the 500 and Cup’s Coca-Cola 600 later that day in Charlotte, Larson will become just the fifth driver in racing history – and first since Busch a decade ago – to attempt “The Double,” the feat John Andretti first completed in 1994.
The best Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart or Busch could ever manage on the Indy 500 leg of the day has been 6th, with Stewart logging 4th and 3rd-place finishes in the 600 in 1999 and 2001, respectively. But only once – Stewart’s journey in 2001 – has a driver completed all 1,100 miles and 600 laps.
IMS president Doug Boles reckons Kyle Larson may be just the driver to tackle this feat in a way no one has – and be able to do so perhaps for years to come.
“He’s as well-positioned to be successful in a ‘Double’ as anyone has been, with the exception of Tony Stewart, only because Tony started in Indy cars,” Boles told IndyStar. “And I’d argue he’s certainly as talented.
“This isn’t a, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to do this my whole life, and now that I’m done pursuing my other things, I’m going to come try this.’ This is a guy who, theoretically, will be in a NASCAR title hunt in 2024, and he’s coming over there to try and win an Indy 500.”