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Larson: “Magic draft” helped to secure second-fastest in Indy 500 Open Test

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Kyle Larson rounded out the rain-curtailed, one-day 2024 Indianapolis 500 Open Test in second-place on the speed charts, behind defending winner Josef Newgarden, who bettered his 2023 test-topping time with a 228.811 mile per hour fastest average lap speed.


“I saw Twitter was going crazy because: ‘Oh, Kyle Larson was second in his first IndyCar practice with people’,” Larson said. “But there’s a lot of people that weren’t drafting out there or didn’t have the draft that I had. I take the credit, but it’s really not a big deal, either.”


The NASCAR superstar, attempting Double Duty by running the Indy 500 with Arrow McLaren before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, had only driven an Indy car twice previously. He completed his Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval Rookie Orientation Programme in October before a further test at the shorter Phoenix Raceway in February.


The IMS Open Test offered Larson, who is currently in the thick of the start of the NASCAR season, a first opportunity to run in traffic and be on track with other drivers that could offer a benchmark for him to compare himself with today. A fastest average lap speed of 226.384 mph came as a result of what Larson joked was a “magic draft” during the first two hours.


“When I was able to go that faster lap, I think that was my first run on that set of tyres, and there were a few cars in front of me,” Larson said. “I’ve been hearing about how the dirty air is and all that and how bad it is. In that run I was like: ‘Man, it doesn’t feel that bad.’ It didn’t feel that different from clean air. I was wide open behind them, and it was no problem. 


“Then we did some ins and outs and got towards the end of that set of tyres. I was by myself just kind of running and building lots of understeer by myself, and we stayed out there to kind of allow Newgarden to catch me. He ended up passing me and I totally lost the nose. That was pretty crazy, feeling that. 


“I think I could have done a better job when he passed me, timing the run and all that. Once I kind of lost the nose, it was hard to recover from it. It was so sensitive that I don’t even know if that’s real. But I would assume that’s more real than me not feeling a balance change in traffic.”


Larson did admit it is “kind of hard to learn right now” with the conditions considerably different to those in May. He also noted that the packs being smaller during testing leave more to learn and further challenges to overcome. He is certainly not getting ahead of himself.


“I think I’m going to be overloaded during the race trying to process information, learning during the race,” Larson said. “But for practice, the few laps I got in the second session, there was a lot of checking up for whatever reason getting in the corner. I think that helped me realise that I needed to look further ahead than the one car that’s in front of me.”


Another part of the continual learning process as Larson gets up to speed is getting accustomed to racing against a different crop of drivers to those he is used to going up against in his NASCAR or sprint car exploits. He admitted he cannot even tell who he is running around or learning from on track.


“I don’t know who I’m out there around because in a stock car somebody turns the corner you can see a door number or there’s a number on their back bumper,” he said. ”That was surprising. I thought it would be easier to know who was out there around me.” 


He went on to add that he is “probably just going to have to go off what my teammates” say about his competitors.


“I haven’t really heard much about other drivers and their aggressiveness or who’s really aggressive, who’s crazy, who’s not, who can you take advantage of, who can’t you… stuff like that,” he said.


Adapting to the actual car has not been impossibly difficult for Larson, who described that the tyres feel “relatively similar” to a stock car, even if they “wouldn’t be running around here wide open” on the IMS oval.


Larson has also admitted he headed into his first full-field test feeling much more relaxed than if he had not completed his Rookie Orientation Programme at the back end of last year, along with the further test at Phoenix. 


“I think had I had to do the ROP today, I would have been stressed out and really nervous and just not able to focus on something or anything,” he said. “So having it spread out helped me kind of take my time with… I wanted to feel the car at the ROP and feel little stuff - what the steering wheel felt like, what all that felt like. Like: ‘Okay, that was good.’


“Then go to Phoenix, now I want to feel the car slipping and moving and work on ins and outs of pit stalls and things like that. That was good for that test. Today I could move on to the next thing. How does it look around cars? How does what I’ve learned in the past translate to now being behind cars?


“I would have been stressed out about the ROP and what that was going to look like. And then you’re past that, now you’ve got to go out there and run wide open behind somebody. I don’t know if mentally I’d be ready for that. I’m fortunate that I was able to do the ROP last year and then be allowed to run that little bit at Phoenix for sure.”


The most recent NASCAR driver, prior to Larson, to race in IndyCar was seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished in 28th after a late crash. Larson has spoken “briefly” to Johnson ahead of the Month of May.


“He just said I was going to have a blast, honestly. I’ve tried not to ask too many questions to people. I feel like the way I’ve learned in the past is I just need to learn on my own a little bit. And don’t get me wrong, I’m leaning on Tony Kanaan a lot and was in there during the couple-hour break talking to my teammates. But I think to a point, I just need to almost just feel things out on my own sometimes.


“Jimmie hasn’t run a NextGen [Cup Series] car that much, so I don’t know how well he could compare to what I currently feel in a stock car and how that would relate to this. Any information is good. I just don’t want to overload myself with too much information from too many different people and confuse myself. 


“It’s a small window of time to learn, and I think if I overwhelm myself with too much info, I can get lost.”

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