Kyle Larson said he had “a moment” during Monday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES test at Phoenix Raceway, and believe it or not, he appreciated having the car briefly get sideways on him.
Experiencing what it feels like to nearly lose control of the Arrow McLaren Chevrolet is part of the NASCAR Cup Series champion’s learning curve as he prepares for his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge this May. He is attempting the “Hendrick 1100” daily double of racing the “500” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 26.
“We went to do a long run and had different (tire) air pressures to start,” Larson said of the final run of the session estimated at three hours. “The car felt a lot different early in the run, and I kind of had my mind made up that it was going to feel tighter. It was starting to get loose pretty quickly, and I was a bit confused and wasn’t quite expecting that.
“I was trying to make adjustments on the weight jacker and things like that, and I just got caught off guard a little bit. I had some warnings a few laps before that. I went into (Turn 1). I got a little bit loose into the corner, got to the apex, and as I got to the bottom (of the track), it started to get sideways. I was able to catch it.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver said it was “good to feel” the car not being perfect as it was in his Rookie Orientation Program last October at IMS. A short oval track like Phoenix offers more opportunities for trouble, and Larson used five sets of tires to cover about 200 miles. At IMS, Larson turned 72 laps – about 180 miles.
Getting comfortable enough in the car to experience such a tense moment gave Larson the confidence he is on the path to becoming ready for the action that awaits him in the spring in the partnership between Hendrick Motorsports and Arrow McLaren.
“Honestly, nothing about yesterday felt way different than a Cup car feels like,” said Larson, who won a race at Phoenix en route to the 2021 Cup Series championship. “That was good for me. The characteristics of an Indy car versus a Cup car – at least at Phoenix – felt very similar. You’re just going a lot faster in an Indy car. The moments happen a little quicker, the edge of good versus not good feels a little sharper.”
The challenge of the Phoenix test was measuring himself against no one. Data from the last NTT INDYCAR SERIES event at the 1-mile oval in 2018 isn’t all that applicable.
“I felt like when the car was gripped up, I was close to optimizing it, but it’s so hard to say when it’s just me out there,” said Larson, who has yet to be on track with another INDYCAR SERIES car. “I wish there could have been like one other guy there that I could have judged myself off of and look at data and compare to.
“When you’re just comparing data to 2018, the cars were quite a bit different then, the tires were different, all of that. I’m just out there kind of guessing and going off of feel, which is kind of cool because it’s like old-school style testing, I guess, but not what I’ve been accustomed to the last, gosh, I don’t know, the last six or eight years, probably.
“But I felt like I got close to the limit. That last run when my balance started to (go away), I felt (trouble) coming. It felt like I was getting close to having a moment, and then I did. So, I liked that what my brain was registering happened and … I felt like I could feel the balance and describe it OK, too.”
Larson also said it was helpful to make several simulated pit stops Monday. He admitted to making mistakes in that process, too, for which he again was thankful. It’s all part of learning the differences between driving the two different types of cars.
“I did better getting into my (pit) stall and all of that than I did at Indy,” he said. “So, we really checked a lot of boxes and got reacclimated.
“(I’m) looking forward to the Open Test there at Indy (April 10-11) and getting into the Month of May.”
Larson noted the benefit of having Brian Campe, Hendrick Motorsports’ technical director, on hand for the test. Campe was a lead engineer at Team Penske with Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2015 Indianapolis 500 victory and Josef Newgarden’s two NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships.
“He’s obviously well-respected, got a great resume and (is) a really smart mechanic/engineer,” Larson said. “You want all the best people in your corner, and he’s definitely a really, really smart guy.”
Larson is one of the five rookies confirmed to participate in the 108th Running of the “500,” including the past two INDY NXT by Firestone champions (Linus Lundqvist and Christian Rasmussen). Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson are part of Chip Ganassi Racing’s five-car lineup. Rasmussen will be in the third entry of Ed Carpenter Racing. The other first timer is Tom Blomqvist, the sports car ace driving for Meyer Shank Racing.
Larson will drive the No. 17 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet fielded by Arrow McLaren, a team that includes 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, Pato O’Ward and David Malukas.
Night running. pic.twitter.com/kEdn0TBpyI— No. 5 Team (@Hendrick5Team) February 6, 2024