Brown and Ward heap praise on Larson following Indy 500 qualifying performance

Photo Credit: Penske Entertainment | Justin Walsh
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NASCAR’s Kyle Larson has long been a driver that IndyCar fans wanted to see race in the Indy 500. For the 2024 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” race fans will get their wish.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown was the driving force behind the 2021 NASCAR champion getting the opportunity to race at the Brickyard.

“Well, it couldn’t have gone any better. I got a call from Zak,” said NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. “Everybody knew that Kyle wanted to run the Indy 500, and so [I] started talking to Zak, Jeff Gordon did and I did, and we put a deal together. I never thought I’d get to have an entry in the Indy 500 in my life.”

Larson’s foray into IndyCar is turning heads in international racing circles. He was on the pace immediately from practice and qualified a stunning P5 last Sunday, beating highly rated teammate Pato O’Ward in the process.

“I think the racing community is big and small, and they all pay attention to the various forms of racing and have a lot of respect for all the different disciplines,” said Brown.

“In Monaco, once that race is over, the world of Formula 1 will turn their attention to the Indy 500, and they’ll have one of their teams in the race partnering with one of the most if not the most legendary team in motorsports with a world champion driver if you like, and it’s going to be exciting, and everyone is tuned in and everyone is curious to see how we’re collectively going to get on.

“There will be a lot of eyes glued to the TV and certainly wouldn’t be surprised if that included all 20 Formula 1 drivers.”

Gavin Ward, Arrows McLaren Team Principal, spent 13 years with Red Bull Racing in Formula One. Ward had the opportunity to observe Sebastian Vettel up close when working with Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.

“Kyle‘s one of the best drivers I‘ve ever worked with for sure, without a doubt,“ said Ward. “I can‘t believe how well he‘s done here. I‘m over the moon, the team at Arrow McLaren is over the moon, and Hendrick Motorsports is absolutely over the moon with how things have gone from here. We‘ll just keep trying to execute from here.”

Brown, as the McLaren boss, is uniquely positioned to comment on the differences bewtween Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR.

“I think drivers realize how difficult hopping into other disciplines are,” Brown said. “We’ve seen Formula 1 drivers coming to NASCAR and win Formula 1 races and struggle in NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s an awesome racing driver, and Dario Franchitti, et cetera, so I think everyone has a tremendous amount of respect for how difficult other championships are.

“Everyone understands how difficult Indianapolis is and how a small mistake can have big consequences at the speed you’re traveling. You’re not just locking a left front brake and going a little bit wide into Turn 1.”

Brown continued, “For Kyle to have not put a wheel wrong, yet explore the limits of the race car and the racetrack, as Mr. H said going into Turn 1 — it’s the same thing I saw when Fernando Alonso came over.

“What I’ve found about these great drivers is they can compartmentalize — they know where they’re trying to get to on race day, but they then know on day one they’re trying to accomplish a certain thing, day two, day three. They don’t get ahead of themselves.

“I think what you’ve seen out of Kyle, which is what makes him a championship-caliber driver, is his preparation going into the race. I think he now knows what the high line is like, the low line, traffic, dirty air, wind direction change, and he’s been exploring that within his own comfort zone, even though from the outside sometimes people like myself and Mr. H were a little bit less comfortable watching.

“It’s the same thing we saw with Fernando Alonso when we raced with Andretti. Mario was like, he’s going to get himself in trouble, and Fernando came in and was like I’m just trying to kind of figure it out, and he was well within his comfort zone,” said Brown.

“I think everyone recognizes the talent it takes to go out and qualify fifth in your first Indy 500 when you’ve never raced an INDYCAR, and so a huge admiration for him.”

Brown is excited about the race and is looking for ways McLaren and Hendrick can partner in the future.

“I’m very excited. I think it’s a privilege to work for McLaren and to go racing with Mr. H, Kyle and the Indy 500,” said Brown. “It’s a dream come true, so it’s definitely going to be a pinch-me moment. I’m looking forward to it.

“I think it’s super cool to have some papaya on the NASCAR, so certainly we’ve got to focus right now on Sunday and then turn our attention to the future. But we’ve known each other a long time and would certainly love to continue working together.”