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May 15, 2024

Kyle Larson bringing added buzz to this year’s Indy 500

Kyle Larson signs autographs.
Paul Hurley
Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS — The exterior of the Arrow McLaren merchandise trailer still stands out with its world-famous papaya orange primary color.

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But inside is a distinctly new look for the team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month.

An hour before the green flag of last Saturdays IndyCar race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, fans lined up to buy shirts, hats and flags honoring whats been deemed The H1100 Kyle Larsons attempt at winning the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in a joint venture between Hendrick Motorsports and Arrow McLaren.

But the gear options at the team’s infield trailer went well beyond that. A vast selection of Larson’s dirt racing merch and NASCAR-branded apparel was also being offered.

Roughly half of the IndyCar teams trailer display space was devoted to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion.

RELATED: Larson earning respect from IndyCar field

I haven’t been out there yet to see it, but my parents, just (seeing) the exterior of it, they were like, Man, if I was your teammates, I’d be pretty pissed because it’s basically all you, Larson said with a laugh Wednesday morning at the Brickyard. It seems my merchandise has been going really strong in the NASCAR stuff, so I’m excited to kind of see how it is here at Indy because especially like a one-off thing, I think it should be very popular seeing the numbers from the road course event, when I wasn‘t even here, is pretty good.

“So yeah it’s pretty exciting. I feel like I’ve signed a bunch of diecast cars already and a bunch of T-shirts. So as the crowd gets more massive it should be pretty interesting.”

IMS officials have said this week that the 108th running of the Indy 500 has fewer than 10,000 tickets remaining in its 257,000-seat grandstands for the May 26 race. The event is tracking for its largest crowd since 2016 (which sold out for the 100th running), and the attendance spike largely could be attributable to Larson. Last year, Roger Penske told NBC Sports that he expected well more than 300,000 for the 2024 Indy 500 and cited Larson as a major reason.

Acknowledging that it’s good for IndyCar, Arrow McLaren star Pato O’Ward — the series’ most popular driver and a big merchandise seller in his own right — doesn’t mind having the attention usurped by Larson.

view of Kyle Larson's merch trailer
Courtesy of Nate Ryan

I‘ve got my own (merchandise) store, so I‘m all right, OWard, who drives the No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet, deadpanned. No, I mean, I guess he‘s a pretty big deal right? I think it’s cool what he’s doing. I would love to do that in the future (and run the Coke 600 after the Indy 500). I want to get a win here first, then I can think of doing that.

But I think it’s cool. I haven’t gone to the trailer, but I wouldn’t be shocked.I know they made a big deal out of it, and I think they’re just capitalizing on the opportunity, right? That’s what youve got to do, but it’s all right. I see a lot of 5 shirts walking around, so I don’t think it’s hurting us.

It certainly has been a boon to Larson’s appeal, though. While Larson admittedly “bored to death” by rain delays (after a nearly total washout Tuesday on the opening day of Indy 500 practice, track drying finally began midday Wednesday in hopes of a session that would start late afternoon and run until 7 p.m.), his spirts have been buoyed by the interest. There was a similar groundswell in 2014 when Kurt Busch was the fourth and most recent NASCAR driver to attempt “The Double.”

“I think it’s just that the fans kind of want to follow it and support it, and I’ve felt that so far,” Larson said.

The sports books also have connected with the excitement. Some have listed Larson with the second-best odds behind defending IndyCar series champion Alex Palou (who finished fourth in last year’s Indy 500 from the pole).

Larson also was bemused to be listed ahead of six-time IndyCar series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner, Scott Dixon.

“Yeah, that’s crazy, but that doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “So I think people are wasting their money but maybe not. I guess I hope to not have people waste their money on me, but yeah, that’s insane.”

The prospect of winning as a rookie might not seem so outlandish when considering that all four of Arrow McLaren’s Dallara-Chevy entries qualified in the first four rows last year. O’Ward also led at least 17 laps in each of the past three Indy 500s.

So could Larson become an IndyCar version of Shane van Gisbergen, who stunned NASCAR by winning his Cup debut in the Chicago Street Race?

Kyle Larson signs autographs.
Matt Fraver | Penske Entertainment

Palou said it’s possible and added that a victory by the interloper wouldn’t reflect badly on IndyCar.

“It’s Kyle Larson; I don’t think it would hurt,” Palou said. “If Kyle Larson wins, it’s Kyle Larson, so whatever. He wins everything. So I don’t think it would make us look as idiots. It’s not that I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, if he wins, that’s cool.’ I don’t want him to win. But I think he will be there, for sure.”

Arrow McLaren teammate Alexander Rossi, who was the most recent rookie to win the Indy 500 in 2016, already ranks Larson as among the world’s greatest and said an Indy 500 win would put him “on the same level” as three-time defending Formula One champion Max Verstappen.

Rossi said a win by Larson would sting for his IndyCar peers just as van Gisbergen’s victory did for the Cup field at Chicago last July. Chase Elliott said then that van Gisbergen “made me look bad,” and Larson openly wondered if van Gisbergen “thinks we all suck or if we could actually like compete, if we weren’t really that bad on street courses.

“It would be the same thing that the Cup guys felt,” Rossi said of a potential Indy win for Larson. “We know he’s good, but for him to come into our world, and in his first event win, that doesn’t reflect well on us. That’s kind of just the competitive nature of it, and that’s the reality of it. That being said, all drivers feel that we need to win this race and that involves beating everyone, including him, so it doesn’t really matter.”

For the record, Larson said he “really haven’t got myself to think about winning at this point” and noted that van Gisbergen’s victory came on a street course — where he had massive experience vs. virtually none for the NASCARCup Series stars. “So I think if I was to win (the Indy 500), it’d be lucky more than skill,” Larson said with a laugh. “But I’m not sure.”

The primary objective is just turning laps once the track was dry for the first time this week.

In addition to extending practice to 7 p.m. Wednesday, IndyCar also moved up the start of practice by two hours Thursday to 10 a.m. ET.

On Friday, cars will be equipped with a turbo boost equivalent to 100 horsepower that will be used only for qualifying on Saturday and Sunday (bringing top-end speeds into the 240-mph range).

For Larson, it means there still is a lot to learn the next few days before he even could consider focusing on a win.

I don’t think that I would do very good at this point, Larson said when asked about his current Indy 500 confidence level. For sure, I would learn a lot throughout the race, but I would be starting further behind now then I will be next week. So there’s still a lot of things that I want to get done over the course of this week to prepare myself for next week. If it would hurry up and just stop raining, so I can get out there.”