Kyle Larson’s eyes wandered Thursday during a press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a sure sign that his attention was elsewhere.
Yes, he appreciated the questions regarding his participation in next year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, but he was more interested in watching the NTT INDYCAR SERIES cars being rolled out to track ahead of the impending practice session. Hence those eyes drifting to the televisions hanging in the DEX Imaging Media Center.
When the media session ended, 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Larson quickly moved to the fourth-floor outdoor balcony to see the cars streaking by at speed. Within minutes, Larson was on the pit stand of Arrow McLaren, an NTT INDYCAR SERIES team he will join for next year’s “500” for his debut effort in the event.
Larson took in everything he could Thursday as he conceded his knowledge of this series is limited to what he learned more than a decade ago as an Indianapolis-based sprint car driver.
“I went to (Arrow McLaren’s) race shop a couple weeks ago to get the first initial seat insert formed to me, and I still have to finish that whole process,” Larson said. “They gave me a big packet of stuff to look at – notes and dash displays – and they emailed me some onboard footage. I watched all of that, kind of got a sense of it, and (it was) nice to see the onboard (video), see the shifting, the adjusting, all the cockpit adjustable things that (drivers) have. Just seeing how the flow of the race kind of goes, how they position themselves behind people in traffic, stuff like that. Restart procedures, all of that. Pit stops, pulling into your (pit box), all of that.
“But I don’t know when I’m testing yet, so I don’t want to, like, pick people’s brains yet, then have to go to them in a few months and ask the same questions over again.”
So, Larson spent Thursday absorbing, seeking the thoughts of another veteran of Indiana’s short tracks – four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who won five Brickyard 400s at IMS – as they prepare for this eagerly anticipated opportunity.
Larson’s NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports, has partnered with Arrow McLaren to make next year’s experience happen. Over the next year, Gordon will be at Larson’s side as vice chairman of the North Carolina-based Hendrick organization.
Larson, 30, has competed on the iconic IMS oval 10 times, six of those races in the Cup Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. But a stock car is not one of these, so it’s imperative to take the steps to learn the nuances of this sport.
“It’s such a different world, right?” Gordon said. “I think as a driver, driving a race car is sort of natural what you need to go fast, to compete, but you’re talking about Indianapolis at 230-plus mph and 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 stock car or a sprint car. It’s different.
“For us 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 the full potential, get Kyle everything he needs, to get Arrow McLaren everything it needs, to make sure that this effort goes as smooth as possible and gives them the best opportunity to get a great result.”
Larson plans to spend considerable time in the months ahead with Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who competed in last year’s “500” and spent two seasons as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver. He’ll do the same with Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup Series champion who finished sixth in the 2014 “500” for Andretti Autosport, in preparation for his first chance to drive an INDYCAR SERIES car. That opportunity could come in October during the series’ annual offseason test.
For the record, Gordon, who never drove one of these cars, said he does not want to mimic Larson.
“I sure as heck right now don’t want to drive into Turn 1 at 238 (mph), whatever they’re running,” he said. “But Kyle does, (and) Kyle is capable of it.”
Interestingly, when Gavin Ward joined Arrow McLaren last year as its racing director, he was asked about fielding an additional car for this “500,” perhaps even one for a high-profile driver.
He reached for the sky, jokingly offering a name.
“Well, if you gave me Kyle Larson to put in it, I’d definitely want to do it … (and) we’ll find a way to make it happen if you can do that,” he said. “Lo and behold …”
Ward said having Tony Kanaan serving as the team’s Indy-only driver this month will prepare the team for Larson’s arrival, and Gordon said Larson couldn’t have a better helper than Kanaan, who will remain with the team as a driver coach after competing in his final INDYCAR SERIES race Sunday, May 28. Kanaan and Larson have worked together previously, teaming with Scott Dixon and Marino Franchitti to win the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race on the Daytona International Speedway road course in 2015.
Larson spent considerable time Thursday studying Kanaan and many of the crew members who could work on his car next year. The rest of his time was spent studying Arrow McLaren as a whole.
“It’s been nice even being here the short amount of time we’ve been here today to see how (the team has) things laid out,” Larson said. “The hospitality, where the teams eat, the engineering room, stuff like that. I didn’t know any of that before I got here today.
“This is the only day I’m going to be able to come (to an official “500” session) this year, so even just getting eyes on all of that I think will help – little things like that – for next year. Then, yeah, paying closer attention to everything than I would have in the past. Me just being a fan in other years, you might just overlook things. (As a fan) You’re probably just looking at the quality of racing and stuff like that, where now I'll be more in-depth in watching the race, watching what they do in practices. Then being able to listen to communication today is awesome, as well.
“I think there's going to be a lot of stuff that comes up throughout the next year that's going to help prepare me.”