Kyle Larson turned his first official laps in an Indy car on Thursday, passing his Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and checking off the first requirement for his 2024 Indianapolis 500 bid.
Larson drove a No. 6 Arrow McLaren/Hendrick Motorsports entry on the 2.5-mile oval, successfully completing the three phases of his rookie test — 10 laps between 205-210 mph, 15 laps at 210-215 mph and 15 laps faster than 215 mph. The 31-year-old driver, a 22-time winner as a regular and former champion in the NASCAR Cup Series, will attempt to qualify for his first Indy 500 start next May.
Larson’s best lap speed in the final session was recorded at 217.898 mph, and his best clocking through the speed traps at the end of both straightaways was 221.187 mph.
“Building up to that speed and pace and confidence was nice to do in ROP, but yeah, just getting to feel what an Indy car feels like, being low to the ground, feel the acceleration through the gears was pretty crazy,” Larson said. “All of that was eye-opening and an experience that I know for sure I’ll never forget, and now I look forward to kind of getting around cars and feel how the dirty air affects things.”
Larson is set to become the fifth driver to attempt the Memorial Day Weekend double on May 26, 2024, aiming to compete in the Indianapolis 500 before traveling to Charlotte for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. The designs of the cars and “Hendrick 1100” branding for Larson’s two-race effort were unveiled at the Indianapolis track on Aug. 13, seven months after the Indy 500 bid was confirmed.
A full delegation of Hendrick Motorsports dignitaries made the trip, including team owner Rick Hendrick, vice chairman Jeff Gordon and team president and general manager Jeff Andrews. For Gordon, the visit was partly a reconnection to his Indiana roots and the site of some of his biggest stock-car successes – with the inaugural Brickyard 400 triumph counted among his five IMS wins.
The track’s historic significance was one focal point, but the task of getting Larson up to pace was the primary thrust.
“On the other hand is just Kyle, watching him in his craft and his element,” Gordon said. “I could tell he was a little bit nervous. Heck, my palms were sweating before he got out on track myself, but then immediately you just see it click when he made those first few laps, and he just went into Kyle Larson mode of, ‘all right, now how do I get up to speed and go fast.’ … He doesn’t want to just come here and compete. He wants to come here and compete competitively.”
The moment also held a surreal feel for Hendrick, who stood alongside Larson for the reveal of the liveries back in August.
“It didn’t really hit me until I saw him,” Hendrick said. “We had the car here when we had the unveiling, but when you hear it and see it come by, and he’s in it, that’s when it really … it was goosebumps. It was goosebumps, it was pride, happy for him because it’s a bucket list for him and probably Jeff and I, too. But just to hear it, see it and watch the speed when it came then, that brought it all to life.”
The test was conducted under the watch of IndyCar officials but also Arrow McLaren sporting director Tony Kanaan, who hoisted the Indy 500 trophy in 2013. Larson’s next on-track steps at the Speedway will come in an Indy 500 open test next April. Kanaan said that so far, Larson’s talent has made his coaching and consulting role an easier job.
“I don’t think Kyle Larson needs evaluation as an IndyCar driver,” said Kanaan, an IndyCar champion in 2004. “He’s a complete race car driver. It’s probably, out of his generation, the best I’ve seen. I’ve tasted a little bit what these guys do, like he does trying different cars lately, and I know how much I struggle, and he wins in everything. … He’s just one of the best race car drivers in the world right now, and I’m very fortunate to actually get the chance to work with him.”
As for Larson’s next steps on the NASCAR side, his quest for a second Cup Series championship continues this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Sunday’s South Point 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). The race is the opener for the postseason’s Round of 8.
At first blush, the transition from an Indy car at Indianapolis to a full-bodied stock car at Las Vegas might seem like a tight and potentially jarring turnaround. But Gordon brushed off the suggestion that rookie testing at Indy might stretch the team thin, noting Larson’s penchant for extracurricular racing of all types of vehicles – including a drive to a championship two days ago in the High Limit Sprint Car Series at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana.
“For Kyle, I mean, that guy’s off racing all the time. He’s all over the place,” Gordon said. “So the team is well prepared. He and Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) have been prepping and planning for this weekend, and they’re very well prepared for this next round. Feel very good about this next round. It was this last round that was the nerve-wracking one, and we saw it all the way down to the final lap at the Roval.
“So from our standpoint, we’re fortunate to have enough great people and depth at our organization to be able to prepare for what’s ahead and really make sure that’s the priority, and the focus for the company is to go win a championship this year, get through this next playoff round and go to Phoenix, but also be up here and be able to enjoy a day like today.”