Kyle Larson hopes rain and his daughter's misgivings don't ruin Indianapolis 500 debut

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Audrey Larson, all of 6 years old, is rooting for Alexander Rossi to win the Indianapolis 500. And if her dad doesn't flip his car — she is pretty convinced he will — then maybe he can finish second.

That's some kind of cheering section that Kyle Larson is taking into “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Yes, the daughter he just whisked to Paris to see Taylor Swift as a birthday gift has chosen a rival over her father in his Indianapolis 500 debut on Sunday.

The 31-year-old Larson, a father of three, is trying to become the modern-day version of Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart by showing once again that he is capable of winning in any kind of car. And the latest challenge for the sprint car superstar-turned-NASCAR champion is to become just the fifth driver in history to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina on the same day.

Stewart in 2001 is the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles. Kurt Busch in 2014 is the last to even try.

Larson hasn't asked for much advice — mostly because he doesn't even know what to ask about driving an Indy car — but the greats who came before him aren't too concerned with how he will perform starting fifth in a joint effort between Arrow McLaren Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, his NASCAR team.

“He has the potential to do what’s never been done and win both of these races," Stewart said. "He’s just one of those naturally talented guys that you can put him in anything and he can drive it.”

The list of drivers who try both open-wheel racing and stock car racing is long and the differences are stark. Stock cars can take a beating and contact is part of the deal; Indy cars are far more fragile, and contact with a competitor or wall can end someone's race immediately.

Robby Gordon attempted “The Double” five times ,with his 2002 showing of eighth at Indy and 16th at Charlotte his best attempt. He too believes Larson can win both races; Larson already won the 600, NASCAR's longest race, in 2021.

“Kyle has a shot, a legitimate shot,” Gordon said. “We may look at him as a stock car driver, but he knows where his wheels are, he's not worried about clipping wheels with anybody or getting tires tangled. We all know he's not scared, and he's also light, that's going to help him. He's got a lot of advantages, and Kurt Busch did a great job, but I think Kyle will do a better job.”

The deal between Hendrick and McLaren is for two years, which could be the smart play if the Indy 500 gets rained out Sunday. The forecast is iffy at best. Rick Hendrick has indicated he would have a hard time pulling Larson out of Indy to get to Charlotte, but it is a possibility the NASCAR team owner holds Larson to his day job.

McLaren boss Zak Brown said the decision will be left to Hendrick, who brought Larson's entire No. 5 crew to Indianapolis on Friday for Carb Day to give those employees a chance to experience the Indy 500 atmosphere.

Larson has been working on the project for more than a year, but he has truly embraced the past two weeks at the historic speedway. Rain washed out a bunch of track time the first week, but since then, he has milked a cow, participated in community day at a local elementary school and was set to lead the annual driver parade Saturday through downtown Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are allowing Larson to be first in the parade to shorten his time in the city, giving him a buffer in getting to Charlotte later Saturday for qualifying for the 600.

Larson, who runs the Daytona 500, some of the top sprint car races in the world and won the sports car showcase Rolex 24 at Daytona, thinks many big events can learn from the pomp and pageantry of Indianapolis.

“This is like Disneyland or the Disney World of racetracks. It is the nicest facility," he said. "Two weeks of stuff, buildup to the race — there’s so many things that make this event feel different and bigger. But yeah, there’s no other event I’ve been a part of to this point, and I haven’t even gotten to race yet, that’s felt quite as big as the Indy 500.”

Larson said his 9-year-old son, Owen, has grasped the magnitude of the Indy 500. Audrey remains unimpressed, while 17-month-old Cooper is just along for the ride.

“Audrey thinks I'm crazy. She's said it multiple times, ‘Why are you going to get in a car that you are going to flip?’" Larson said. “Every time we've talked about it, she says it. I don't know where she's seen it. Owen, I think he gets how cool the cars are and how big the space is, and I hope Audrey does once the race gets here.”

Audrey seems to be alone in her opinion about dad, given that some of the best drivers in motorsports history seem to be in Larson's corner. McLaren is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first of its two Indy 500 wins with Johnny Rutherford this year, and “Lone Star JR” went to Kokomo Speedway last week to watch Larson race a sprint car.

“He's a racer,” said Rick Mears, the four-time Indy 500 winner, who downplayed Larson's lack of IndyCar experience. "I've said for years that I can come out here or anywhere and test for three weeks and I will learn more in the first 30 laps of the race than I learned in three weeks of testing. Because in testing and practice, you don't get put in positions that you do in the race. And that's when you start learning.

“That's where his learning curve is, right? He's dealt with similar stuff through the years. He's going to have his work cut out for him, but if he does the job I think he will, he'll have an opportunity.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

05/25/2024 10:10 -0400

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