Please excuse Kyle Larson if he looks a bit distracted this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No, his mind won’t be occupied with his upcoming run at a second NASCAR Cup Series title, with the postseason only weeks away. No, it won’t even be occupied with concern over how his teammates will recover from last week’s debacle in Michigan.
During the Saturday-Sunday IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader, if we catch Larson dreamily staring off into the skies of Speedway, Indiana, like Luke Skywalker looking toward the sunset, it’s because he is already thinking about the next time he will be at Indy with a helmet in hand. He will be there to make his long-sought first start in the Indianapolis 500 … all while commuting back and forth to his stock car day job in Charlotte.
“Of course, I am excited, so excited,” the 31-year-old said. “But ever since we announced that I would be doing to the Indy-Charlotte double back in January, I have also been constantly thinking about the logistics of it, how we are going to pull it off. Especially when I am in Indianapolis, and that’s been a lot.”
Anyone who has had their eyes open over the past eight months knows that. He’s popped into town a couple of times for seat fittings and meetings with Arrow McLaren, the team that will field his 2024 Indy 500 ride. And amid the hundreds of thousands who packed the Brickyard over Memorial Day weekend, Larson was spotted strolling Gasoline Alley, the pit lane and, perhaps most importantly, the roads around the Speedway and the helipads located in and around the Racing Capital of the World.
“We are here just to check it all out, because as a racing fan I have always wanted to see this, I’ve just been a little busy racing somewhere else,” Larson explained, laughing, on Sunday morning, May 30, sneakily working his way through the race-day crowds. “But really, this is about getting a feel for this place today. What are the crowds like? What are the roads like? How amped up am I going to be and how am I going to navigate getting out of here? We don’t want any surprises a year from now. At least not that we can avoid.”
Soon after that conversation, Larson ran a de facto dress rehearsal. He bolted via golf cart to that helipad, where a chopper carried him to the Indianapolis airport, where a plane flew him to Concord, North Carolina, where an SUV took him to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he ran up front in that night’s Coca-Cola 600 before spinning off a restart, wrecking and finished 30th.
Of course, the real deal in May 2024 will feel much different than that. And there will most definitely be surprises. Any of the other five drivers who have taken their swings at the double could tell Larson about that.
John Andretti, who died in 2020, was the first to pull it off way back in 1994, when Larson was not yet 2 years old. The following year Davy Jones failed to qualify for Charlotte. Rain literally dampened Robby Gordon’s first attempt in ’97, and rain delays caused him to be late to Charlotte in 2000 and to leave Indy early in ’04, but he successfully did it twice, in 2002 and 2003. Tony Stewart did it twice, finishing top-10 in both races both times, and Kurt Busch finished sixth and 40th in 2014.
“It is way more physically demanding than you think it’s going to be,” Stewart said. “The first time you think, ‘OK, it’s just racing, so give me some lunch on the plane and I’ll be fine.’ But the next time you do it, it’s like, ‘No, get me a doctor and some damn IV bags and whatever else you think might help,’ because it kicks your ass.
“But the big thing that is different now, what’s going to be great for Kyle, is the schedule and the cooperation. Back in the day there were times when you’d look at NASCAR and at IndyCar and ask, ‘Do y’all actually want me to do this or not?’ Because getting them to play ball could be hard. They didn’t want to.”
His dream came true ❤️
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) August 9, 2023
They do now. See: this weekend, the third straight summer of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader at IMS. Any old-school garage or paddock veteran will tell you that for most of their lives, the idea of America’s two premier racing series sharing the same facility on the same weekend was as expected as the Red Sox and Yankees sharing the same team bus.
It’s a rift powered by corporate rivalry that goes way back. According to legend, more than a half century ago, Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spotted Bill France Sr., the man who founded NASCAR, snooping around Gasoline Alley and promptly had him tossed out. In 1959, when France christened his new Daytona International Speedway, among the first cars to roar around that high-banked facility was an IndyCar driven by Marshall Teague, who was killed while attempting a closed-course speed record. Later that spring, 1958 Indy 500 runner-up George Amick was killed in an IndyCar race at Daytona.
Decades later, IndyCars had never run on another NASCAR-affiliated racetrack, and when asked when it might happen again, France replied, “When hell freezes over.”
Indy loyalists were angered by the arrival of “taxi cabs” and the Brickyard 400 in 1994. NASCAR’s devotees reluctantly watched Indy Racing League doubleheaders with the NASCAR Truck Series in the late 1990s. When asked if he would ever consider driving for boss Roger Penske at Indy, Rusty Wallace famously replied, “I wouldn’t get out of an electric chair to drive one of those things.”
In the past decade, though, the cross-pollination between Indy and NASCAR became too frequent to not begin changing the culture of both worlds, especially how they viewed each other. IndyCar president Jay Frye moved to open wheel racing a decade ago after years in NASCAR team front offices, from MB2 Motorsports to Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Red Bull. When the Indy 500 celebrated its 100th running in 2016, Frye invited NASCAR brass, including then-CEO Brian France, to have a VIP experience of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. That group included then-NASCAR CMO and now-president Steve Phelps.
And anyone who knows American motorsports history should not be surprised that Larson’s boss at Hendrick Motorsports greenlit the idea of the double. Because that same boss has always wished he could have attempted it himself.
“I am excited for Kyle, I am excited for us and I am excited for both NASCAR and IndyCar,” HMS vice chairman Jeff Gordon said in May. Gordon famously tried to land an open wheel ride as a youngster but was rebuffed by Indy’s teams at the time for his lack of sponsorship, which forced him to look south to NASCAR. The five-time Brickyard 400 winner didn’t attend his first Indy 500 until 2015, as the honorary pace car driver. “But if I am being honest, I am also super jealous. In my world, this just wasn’t really possible for me. I just hope he lets me ride along with him next May.
“We’ve all competed in this motorsports space for so long. I’ve always wondered, it would be something to see what might happen if we finally worked together, wouldn’t it?”
Now they do.
Competition for ticket sales and television eyeballs is never going away, but when the pandemic forced everyone to reexamine how they did business and how they stacked their schedule, NASCAR and IndyCar conjured up their first top-shelf IMS doubleheader in 2020. While other out-of-the-box ideas from that summer have faded from memory, this one has continued, for now.
There are no crossover moves being attempted this weekend, but those on the world’s most famous racetrack, racing with or without fenders, hope that the concept keeps sticking around. Especially the guy who will be attempting to run both series on the same day a little more than nine months from now.
“I just think that if you are a racing fan, then you are a racing fan, and that includes those of us who are driving,” said Larson. “The chance to see as many different cool cars at once, who wouldn’t want that? I know I do. Clearly, right?”