2024 Indianapolis 500 Coverage

Why Kyle Larson Needed A Second Indy 500 Qualifying Run On Saturday

Why Kyle Larson Needed A Second Indy 500 Qualifying Run On Saturday

Chevy leadership and McLaren race strategist Brian Campe explain why Kyle Larson went off the pace during Saturday's initial Indy 500 qualifying run.

May 19, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

One looming question from Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been why Kyle Larson and five Chevrolet teammates encountered power shortages during Indianapolis 500 qualifications.

Larson’s car was the first Chevrolet of the day to suddenly lose power during his initial qualifying run, his issue arising on the fourth and final lap of his morning run when “some alarm that popped up on the dash” had “cut a bunch of power” from his Dallara-backed No. 17 Hendrickcars.com Arrow McLaren machine.

A plenum event (or plenum fire) had been the official diagnosis — when the engine essentially misfires while shifting from fifth to sixth gear — for not only Larson, but Agustin Canapino, Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, Christian Rasmussen, and McLaren teammate Pato O’Ward.

In layman's terms, Chevy leadership Jim Campbell — vice president of GM Performance and Motorsports — and Rob Buckner — GM’s IndyCar program manager — plus Larson’s race strategist Brian Campe connect the issue to the manufacturer demanding as much power and torque from its engines as possible.

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“Conditions evolve (and) engines are being operated as hard as they possibly can be today,” Buckner told the media in an impromptu press conference alongside Campbell on Saturday. “This is really the day we hang everything out … us, the teams, the drivers. We always have seen some unique things pop up. Every Indy 500 qualifying weekend is an adventure. We got some parts of it right, and other parts we have some work to do.”

What’s most important for not just Larson but his Chevy peers is that there’s no harm to the engines hampered by plenum events on Saturday. The issue was actually not as catastrophic as it appeared in the heat of the moment, so much that Larson could’ve resolved the engine misfire on his lonesome from the cockpit.

But Larson “didn’t know what to do,” confusion then compounded by miscommunication.

“I was told to complete my lap, but I thought they told me to abort the lap,” Larson said. “If I would’ve known what to do in that circumstance, I would’ve lifted and went back to it and completed a below average run, but it would’ve been enough to be in the show at that point.”

Kyle Larson watches Indianapolis 500 qualifying shakeout from pit road. (Penske Entertainment: Karl Zemlin)

A plenum event was, in the words of Campe, an issue the No. 17 McLaren team has “never had before and that Kyle never experienced before.” But now they’ve endured it, they know what to do should it happen again.

"I think (it had to do with) some of our lack of experience across the board, mine as well as (Kyle's), as well as other people in the stand,” Campe told FloRacing. “We could've finished the run. It certainly wouldn't have not been the best. I don't think it would've put us in the show even. It would've been outside the top-30.

“At the end of the day, it was no harm, no foul. But yeah, the miscommunication was recognized and we put things in place to make sure it doesn't happen again. And he learned if that happens again what to do to fix it. He can fix it from the cockpit."

Campbell, the VP of GM Performance Motorsports, said he’s pressed to settle the issue — so much that “we’re running dyno facilities around the world” — so that Larson and his peers aren’t put in that precarious spot again.

“Our team is going to work here overnight … and we’re working on ways to mitigate the issue and error proof for tomorrow around the controls and calibrations,” Campbell said. “There’s some team strategy, as the ambient conditions are clearer for tomorrow, there are some decisions they can make as well. We’ll be working with them on that.

“Everybody [will be working on this]. We do have teams in different parts of the world that will be running, dynos that we have access to around the world. So we’ll be running the dynos there. And then our team here. Rob and his team will be poring through all the data. Data analysis is what you have to do. We got to be ready to go tomorrow.”

Campe, who spoke with FloRacing before Buckner and Campbell addressed the media at large, echoed the details that Chevrolet leadership eventually divulged and especially Buckner’s comments that the setbacks are “definitely related to how hard we're operating these engines.”

"Chevrolet is really pushing the power,” Campe said. “You have to in order to have a shot at it. If you look at the Fast 12, it shows Chevrolet's strength. ... Without getting into the weeds and technicalities of it, every little detail matters down to, like, you hear stories of baseball teams profiling hitters and pitchers.

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“They know the wind and the temperatures ... the detail, that's no different than what we do. Everyone across the board takes their job to that level of detail. There's speed in these really, really fine details right up to the edge, and when you go a millimeter step over, it can end in quote-unquote disaster and ruin a qualifying run.

“But you have to be there to compete, unless you want to start 30th and not take those risks. It's better to risk it on the performance side than risk it and end up not making the show.”

Brian Campe (left) is the race strategist for Kyle Larson's highly anticipated Indianapolis 500 debut. (Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski)

The last major issue of this nature to blemish Chevrolet is when O’Ward — Larson’s teammate at the Indy 500 — had a plenum event cost him last year’s season-opening March 2023 win at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Plenum events aren’t totally abnormal — "They usually happen in practice when they're not so visible,” Buckner said — but they aren’t tolerable either.

"The only acceptable number is zero,” Buckner said. “That’s the standard we're trying to push here. One is too many. When (Larson’s issue) happens, we're looking at ways to mitigate it and unfortunately throughout the afternoon they were increasing the infrequency, so we don't have a full understanding of why. But again, just full confidence in our technical group and partners and everyone at GM Motorsports. We'll figure it out. We'll learn from it. We'll come back with a better package."

“One thing we love about the Indy 500 is we don't hide from it,” Buckner added. “We’re accountable to what goes on here, especially the engine program. We're going to learn from it and come back tomorrow.”

Engine scares and hiccups aside, Chevrolet’s speed very much outpaces Honda through Saturday’s qualifications — nine of the Fast 12 drivers are bowties — and there’s so much optimism that Campe believes he and Larson can contend for a front row Indy 500 starting spot.

“Now it’s, what’s possible? With a bit of handwaving on temperatures and scenarios, I think we have a shot at a front-row start tomorrow,” Campe said. “We should approach tomorrow with that in mind.”

If anything, Saturday’s setbacks should only lead Chevrolet to find greater results for its engine performance. So while it scared Larson and his peers for a brief moment, they should be a-OK as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is now one week away.

“I think it's easy to overlook how much engine performance has been gained throughout the years,” Buckner said. “A lot of times you come up with some really good gains, then you show up here and it's barely competitive. That's just a result of how hard us and our competitors push each other, how much the Indy 500 means as a manufacturer and as an engine program.

"Again, this is judgement weekend for us. We want big power. We want to be robust. We want to be reliable. We missed one little piece of it today. Again, to Jim's point, we're really proud to have nine of the top-12. I think we have a speed advantage. We're going to work as hard as we can going into tomorrow to finish executing the weekend."