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Kyle Larson Completes Indy 500 Rookie Orientation Programme

Written by Archie O'Reilly

Credit: Joe Skibinski

NASCAR’s Kyle Larson has completed his Rookie Orientation Programme (ROP) on the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), meaning he is now eligible to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 next May. This is a significant step for first-time drivers ahead of the Month of May.

The 2021 Cup Series champion is driving with Arrow McLaren, partnered with Hendrick Motorsports, in IndyCar in May as he attempts ‘Double Duty’ by competing in the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day. Larson is the fifth driver to attempt this feat after John Andretti, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon and Kurt Busch.

During the ROP, drivers are required to gradually get up to speed through three phases, during which they are initially required to regulate their speed. The first phase requires drivers to run 10 laps between 205-210 miles per hour, before 15 laps at 210-215 mph and 15 in excess of an average speed of 215 mph.

“The ROP was nice because I was not ready to go flat for a while,” Larson admitted in the end-of-day press conference. “Building up to that speed and pace and confidence was nice to do in ROP.”

Larson notched a fastest average lap speed of 217.898 mph during his running between 11am and 2pm ET on Thursday. And as Larson himself has detailed, he passed through the ROP in “smooth” fashion, aside from a minor hiccup when he couldn’t get the car rolling in the pits. The fact that “it was harder to go slow” speaks to his confidence at this stage.

Credit: James Black

“It was fun,” Larson reflected. “I guess mostly what I anticipated in a way. The speed and the grip didn’t feel, thankfully, scarier than what I thought it might. But just like how much the car wants to pull left, you have to fight it back to the right on the straightaways. All that was something I didn’t expect.

“The way the wheel was lighter, a lot lighter than the simulator, but still a little heavier than what I expected. Other than that, I thought it went really smooth. I think more of the pit road side of things is where I'll have to work more on… Then maximising the apron, braking for pit road, stuff like that, is stuff I’ll have to really focus on and work on.

“Overall it was a great day. Felt like everybody at McLaren did a really good job prepping me to make things easier to get up to speed. Glad to be through today and look forward to the open test in April.”

There will be time for Larson to get up to speed with some details before the open test in April, such as overcoming complicated factors including the steering wheel and changes made to the car during runs. Getting a first outing in the car will no doubt make the process easier and lay groundwork for what is to come.

Larson described his first outing as an “eye-opening experience” and looks forward to gaining an even greater appreciation of what it takes to drive an IndyCar when there is the added factor of navigating other cars on the track come 2024.

Credit: James Black

There has been a big collaborative effort between McLaren and Hendrick Motorsports to get the programme for next year’s Indy 500 going. Newly-appointed Sporting Director at Arrow McLaren, Tony Kanaan, was someone on hand to help Larson to focus on the necessities throughout his ROP process.

“It was a lot of information that I was trying to filter and tell people to stop talking to him about. He doesn't have to worry about that,” Kanaan said. He later added: “You have a wheel with 25 buttons, then you have the weight jacker, front bar, rear bar. You have telemetry you can analyse.

“Engineers, they’re just trying to give you all that, which is way too much information… I didn’t want him to miss the first moment because I think it’s extremely special. I remember my first time here.”

Looking ahead to May and beyond, could success spell the start of more involvement for Hendrick Motorsports in IndyCar? Owner, Rick Hendrick, isn’t ruling anything, as such.

“I’ve learned not to say I’m not going to do anything,” Hendrick said. “I made a statement I wouldn’t run Indy, and 30 days later I had to back it up and say I am going to do that… Our main goal is to win championships in NASCAR. But I’ve learned never say never.”

Credit: Joe Skibinski

Larson’s running is only one part of a busy week of on-track action at IMS. The ROP for debuting drivers takes place on top of more superspeedway testing - after a recent run-out at Texas Motor Speedway - of the hybrid engine set to be introduced in 2024. Chevrolet and Honda have both been running cars extensively since the season’s conclusion last month.

On Wednesday, Tom Blomqvist topped the times with a best average lap time of 220.176 mph, ahead of the Chip Ganassi Racing pair of Linus Lundqvist and Marcus Armstrong. The trio all successfully completed their ROP and had the freedom to run further laps after the designated lunch break as they continue to build IndyCar oval experience.

Either side of Larson running on Thursday, Colton Herta, Alex Palou, Alexander Rossi and Will Power have been in hybrid testing action. Marcus Ericsson and David Malukas will get an opportunity to take the mantle for their new teams - Andretti Global and Arrow McLaren respectively - on Friday, joining Palou and Power on track.

There may be seven-and-a-half months until “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, but preparations for the Month of May are already well underway.


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