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Getting loose and learning: The story of Kyle Larson’s Indy 500 preparations at Phoenix Raceway

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Sometimes, having a ‘moment’ out on track is not such a bad thing for an IndyCar rookie. 

It doesn’t quite feel right calling a NASCAR Cup Series champion and one of NASCAR’s modern greats a rookie. But Kyle Larson is going from scratch in IndyCar as he continues to prepare for his Indianapolis 500 debut with Arrow McLaren - partnered with Hendrick Motorsports - this May.

After successfully completing his Rookie Orientation Programme on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) oval in October, Larson returned to his Arrow McLaren Chevrolet on the one-mile tri-oval at Phoenix Raceway this week. It was more valuable seat time for the 31-year-old. 

And for the first time in an IndyCar, Larson had the heart-stopping moment of almost spinning and narrowly avoiding an accident. It evidently stuck in Larson’s mind given he brought it up off his own back on a number of occasions in a post-test video conference. 

But, having avoided crashing during this moment in the final stint of the test day, which ended under the lights in Arizona, Larson reflects back on the experience as being a valuable one. He continues to learn ahead of making his first appearance on track with other drivers in April’s open test at IMS. 

The American “got three or four hours of laps” and worked through five sets of tyres. “It was good to run through some things, get comfortable out there making laps, get to do some pit stop stuff,” he said in a video conference. “I got loose at one point and almost spun out, so that was good to feel the limit there at slower speeds.” 

Elaborating further on the near spin, Larson said: “We had been doing kind of shorter runs, running through changes, tyres were cycling. I was getting much tighter each run - more understeer, I guess you guys call it. We went to do a long run, had different tyre pressures and stuff to start. The car felt a lot different early in the run. 

“It was like starting to get loose pretty quickly. I was a bit confused, wasn’t quite expecting that. I was trying to make adjustments on the weight jacker and things like that. Yeah, just got caught off guard a little bit. I had some warnings a few laps before. I went into turn one, got a little bit loose into the corner, got to the apex. 

“As I was leaving the bottom, it just started to get sideways. I was able to catch it. Honestly, though, nothing about yesterday felt way different than what a Next Gen Cup car feels like. That was good for me. I think the characteristics of the IndyCar versus the Cup car, at least at Phoenix, felt very similar.”

“You’re just going a lot faster in an IndyCar,” Larson continued. “The moments happen a lot quicker. The edge of good versus not good feels a lot sharper. It didn’t feel way, way different than what I was used to. Even with those moments of getting sideways, it didn’t feel way different.”

Encouragingly, he feels he is starting to become at one with his car, despite little test time so far. 

“That last run when my balance was starting to get free, I felt it coming and felt like I was getting close to having a moment, then I did,” he said. “I like what my brain was registering actually happened. What I was feeling in the car on the other runs, I felt like I could feel the balance well and describe it okay, too.”

Larson by no means feels he is completely entwined with or at the absolute limit in an IndyCar yet. But a question along these lines did elicit a wry smile as he recalled the moment that he nearly spun. “I almost spun out, so I’d like to think I did [get close to the limit],” he said.

“I still think there was room for me to, at times, go another tenth or two faster. That was me, I think, being confident and committing to the throttle, knowing and trusting that the car was going to stay gripped. I felt like, when the car was gripped up, I was close to optimising it, I would like to think. 

“It's so hard to say when it's just me out there. I wish there could have been, like, one other guy there that I could judge myself off of, look at data and compare. We were just comparing data to 2018 - the cars were quite a bit different then, the tyre was different, all of that. I’m just out there kind of guessing and going off of feel.” 

Larson will have to wait until the open test to reach one of the biggest hurdles of all, running on the IMS oval with over 30 other drivers. Only then will he get a true sense for how competitive he may be during the Month of May.

“I could have been half a second or more off the pace yesterday,” he said of his Phoenix test. “I just have no clue. But when I’m out there just judging off myself, I feel like I’m coming up to speed okay. Once we get to the Month of May or the open test in April, that’s when I’ll be able to kind of judge myself based off of the guys who do this for a living. 

“As of right now, I think it’s kind of good to have that pureness of trying to learn on our own. Hopefully that will help me when I get to Indy.”

‘Learning’ continues to be a watchword for Larson, who is still in the very early days of getting to grips with an IndyCar. There are a vast amount of details he needs to learn, such that Arrow McLaren Sporting Director, 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, had to take the initiative of telling Larson not to get overburdened during his first IMS outing in October.

“Once we get on track for two weeks in May, I’m sure we’ll run through a lot of those adjustments,” Larson said. “Even yesterday, I was figuring out the weight-jacker and the bar stuff out, where to touch the corner for balance and things.

“It’s difficult for me. I really have to think about what is oversteer and what is understeer. My whole life, I’ve been loose or tight. I think that’s more of something the engineers need to get comfortable with, my terminology, more than me getting in touch with their terminology. 

“But I’m not really sure. I’m getting better at speaking their language, but it’s just weird. I don’t know why I can’t just say ‘loose’ or ‘tight’. There's time. It's simpler than I make it sound, I think, to figure out weight jacker stuff, cockpit adjustment stuff.”

And it isn’t only the in-car buttons and adjusters that Larson has to gradually become accustomed to, as well as a completely new car driving-wise. Procedures that are standard for him in NASCAR, namely pit stops, have to be completely relearnt. 

“It’s all the little details that you think you have to master if you really want to have a good shot at winning or running up front,” Larson said. “Those details are pulling in your pit box, pulling out of your pit box. The steering wheel is so small, the cockpit is so tight, the steering so slow. Turning in, I have to turn way further than normal, be quick back the other way. 

“The more reps you get, the better at it you are. Yesterday we did some live pit stops at the end of the day. That was good because pit stops are a lot quicker than what I’m used to. In a stock car, all you’re really worried about is popping it into neutral, coasting in, holding the brake pedal, they drop the car, put it in first gear and you take off. 

“Now I’m listening to tones in my headphones when they unplug. I can’t go into first gear until it’s unplugged. The timing and the window for that are much smaller. Yesterday, doing it, it feels like it’s all happening so fast.”

Another part of Larson’s learning experience is getting to know the tendencies of a completely different crop of drivers. He has admitted that clashes with NASCAR races make it hard to pay attention to IndyCar on a race by race basis, but he is keen to pay more attention in advance of his Indy 500 debut.

“For sure I’m going to be paying attention more often to it than I would be before, trying to pay attention to the drivers on the racetrack, maybe their aggression levels, how people race.” he said. “Even though it could be a road course versus the oval, if you see somebody who is aggressive on a road course, they’re probably going to be aggressive on an oval.”

Larson’s learning, particularly through the Month of May and once he is back at IMS for the open test in April, should be aided by having Brian Campe on his timing stand. Campe is Technical Director and Crew Chief at Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR, but he has formerly been a part of winning Indy 500 and IndyCar championship efforts at Team Penske.

“Before I knew all this, I was like, ‘Man, this Brian Campe guy, he’s super smart - just throughout our competition meetings, stuff like that,’” Larson said, admitting he only recently became accustomed with Campe’s resume. “Once we got to Indy, it all made sense why he is who he is.”

Larson’s latest education was limited to an oval fairly dissimilar to IMS. But, at this stage in his IndyCar journey, visiting different tracks, with different characteristics and different setups required, could allow him to understand the car to an even greater degree. Track time of any sort is invaluable.

“Yesterday was probably more uncomfortable just because it’s a smaller track,” he said. “Things are happening quicker. You’re having to lift off the throttle a little bit. At Indy, once we got through the different stages and stuff, we were wide open pretty easy by yourself. It was a cool day and all that. 

“Yesterday was fun to kind of have to work on the timing of the corner and work through some balance things because the balance was definitely not perfect, which was good to feel. At Indy, I’m out there by myself, they have downforce packed into it, I’m comfortable. 

“It was good to feel the car not be quite perfect at times.”

Larson is accustomed to driving different types of cars, experienced in stock car and sprint car racing. Heading into the 2024 season, his venture into IndyCar is the one story on everybody’s lips.

“It’s always good when you can, as a driver, put yourself in new situations where you’re challenging your brain,” Larson said. “You’re challenging yourself to evolve and learn something new, figure out the differences or similarities between race cars.”

Taking on the IndyCar challenge this May is likely to be the biggest challenge of all. 


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