2024 Indianapolis 500 Coverage

For Kyle Larson, The Toughest Indy 500 Task Is Complete

For Kyle Larson, The Toughest Indy 500 Task Is Complete

With Indy 500 qualifications complete, Kyle Larson can now devote his full focus to winning The Greatest Spectacle in Racing itself.

May 20, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

The hardest part of Kyle Larson’s highly touted Indianapolis 500 debut is over with.

Whether that’s believable or not — because who wouldn’t think that actual May 26’s race day itself isn’t The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’s tallest order? — take a moment to grasp what the 31-year-old brought to fruition Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

His fifth-place qualifying effort alone accompanies Indy 500 royalty — Fernando Alonso, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Tony Stewart — in that the Elk Grove, Calif., megastar is one of the rare rookies throughout the event’s 108 installments to start inside the top-five.

“That young man has the ability,” Andretti — the only driver to win NASCAR’s Daytona 500 (1967), the Indy 500 (1969) and a Formula 1 world championship (1978) — said Saturday during an interview with NBC. “I think he’ll be a factor for sure in the race. He’s a racer. That’s it. He didn’t come here just to drive. He came here to win.”

RELATED: The 2024 Indy 500 Starting Lineup: See Where Kyle Larson Starts

But still, attracting Andretti’s praise while solidifying himself into a small part of Indy 500’s sacred history wasn’t Larson’s fulfillment on Sunday.

It’s that he conquered one of the more treacherous missions in motorsports: Completing a dozen of the most demanding laps of his life without blemish between Saturday and Sunday while averaging speeds of no less than 232 mph around the 2.5-mile oval that pushed track temps of 130 degrees.
One little misstep, as history shows, can be catastrophic or even life-threatening.

“I’m happy to not have to run another qualifying run, I’ll be honest,” Larson said through a tone of relief Sunday after his Fast Six run. “It wasn’t that stressful, but each time you go out it gets more stressful because you know you’re going to trim the car out more. You know they’re trying to find that extra little speed.

“In my mind, who doesn’t have experience, you think it’s going to be harder to drive. Just the nerves each time is more and more every time. Glad we made it through it and glad I don’t have to run another four laps.”

Larson appeared impervious the stakes at hand on Sunday and throughout what was an eventful week leading up all-important qualifications, really.

Recapping the week: Tuesday he didn’t get a chance to practice during the 23-minute, rain-shortened session; Wednesday he logged 54 laps over another rain-shortened practice but had the 15th-fastest single-lap speed; Thursday went totally awry when an engine change put the No. 17 McLaren team off sequence and they could only log 29 laps, third-fewest of 34 competitors; but Friday his fortunes started to change.

The final day of practice had been the smoothest yet from start to finish as Larson finally showed results: Second-fastest among overall single-lap speeds and trap speed, plus the 10th-fastest four-lap average that renders a mock qualifying run.

But then Saturday’s qualifications came and an engine scare eventually diagnosed as a plenum event foiled his morning qualifying run. While there was no eventual concern that Larson’s No. 17 McLaren team couldn’t resolve the issue, advancing into the Fast 12 during the heat of the afternoon’s qualification reruns appeared unlikely.

Until Larson defied that logic and vaulted himself into Sunday’s Fast 12, capping a momentous comeback from he and his team.

“It’s gone much better than I could have ever anticipated or ever hoped,” Larson said after Saturday’s qualifying  Just proud of everybody at Arrow McLaren. Proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Thankful.”

Larson’s notorious for racing on the ragged edge, no matter if that’s a NASCAR stock car, Sprint Car, Dirt Late Model, or now an IndyCar. He’s the current NASCAR Cup points leader and though he’s only sparingly able to race his beloved dirt-track divisions has wins in a Sprint Car and Dirt Late Model. His Dirt Late Model win Jan. 14 at Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park is even the third-biggest of the discipline’s young season in terms of winner’s purse ($26,000).

That’s all greater context to understand the anxieties, fears and unknowns that Larson ultimately conquered during Indy 500 qualifications, his first qualifying run in an IndyCar, no less.

“I was sitting in the car and I thought, ‘Man, typically you just like pump your mind up to go make one run of one lap,’” Larson said, beginning a train of thought during an interview Sunday with NBC. “This is like, you make multiple attempts at it and then, like, ‘Oh great, you make Fast 12 and then go spend a whole (extra) day living on the edge.’

“That part is not fun. Like to just qualify once and be done with it. Like, you’re just trying get more speed out of it each time. The conditions are hotter. In a way, that does make you more nervous.”

Larson wasn’t as nervous as his closest onlookers, though, specifically his McLaren coaches Tony Kanaan — the 2013 Indy 500 winner — and Brian Campe. During Saturday’s qualifications where Campe’s “hands were shaking,” Kanaan needed to cast his anxieties upon the race strategist.

“Even Tony Kanaan was on the stand and said, ‘I don’t like doing this. I don’t like watching. I don’t want to do this. I’d rather drive,’” Campe said. “It was interesting that he felt it from our perspective, just the anxiety and the care that you have for your (driver) who is out there. The decisions, or the oversight, you make can cost someone their life.”

Campe isn’t blowing that out of proportion.

“I was here (in 2015) when (James) Hinchcliffe had the suspension go through his leg (in a near-fatal practice crash),” Campe started, “when (Sebastien) Bourdais broke his back (from 2017’s qualifying crash), when Justin Wilson died (after being struck by debris during INDYCAR’s Aug. 2015 race at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway), and when Robert Wickens was paralyzed (by an Aug. 2018 accident during INDYCAR’s Aug. 2018 race at Pocono).”

So, needless to say, Campe doesn’t take his role with Larson lightly at this year’s Indy 500.

“Those are real things and we can’t forget that the decisions made around the team can have pretty substantial consequences,” Campe said. “Yeah, you certainly get anxious and you get nervous and your knees shake. My hands were shaking.”

Every competitor knows the aforementioned risks they put themselves up against, with Larson perhaps knowing best as he’s found an effective way to cope — and tame — the fears that come with whatever race car he straps into: The most recent of those being NASCAR’s stock cars, Sprint Cars, Dirt Late Models, and now IndyCars.

Now, with the hardest part safely in the rearview, it’s onto the next mountainous — but not-so intimidating — task: Finding a way around Team Penske’s juggernaut trio of Scott McLaughlin, Will Power and reigning Indy 500 champion Josef Newgarden, the only drivers that’ll start the biggest race in the world ahead of Larson.

“Yeah, the hardest part is over,” Campe said. “Like we talked earlier: Don’t overextend yourself. … Now, it’s what’s possible? We have a shot. And that’s all we can ask for.”

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