INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jeff Gordon remembers standing along the fence of pit lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a child, hoping that his hero Rick Mears would walk past and give the aspiring young driver an autograph.
As he grew older, Gordon dreamed of following in Mears' footsteps and driving in the Indianapolis 500. His path ultimately led him toward stock cars, where the NASCAR Hall of Famer built one of the best resumés in the history of the sport.
Now, eight years after retiring as a driver, Gordon has found his way back to the speedway.
He was part of the Hendrick Motorsports entourage that arrived Thursday with Kyle Larson, who started the immersion process to prepare for the Indy 500 in 2024. A two-year deal between Arrow McLaren Racing and the 2021 NASCAR champion with Hendrick Motorsports gives Larson a chance to fulfill the childhood dreams he shared with his own father.
It also gives Gordon and Rick Hendrick an opportunity to be part of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“This is bringing back a lot of memories from when I was a kid,” Gordon said as he watched the start of practice from atop a McLaren pit stand. "I never got this experience and I watched a lot of my heroes go around this track in an Indy car.
“Kyle has always made it known that he wanted it to be possible to get behind the wheel of an Indy car and do the Indy 500," Gordon added, "and we're here to learn all we can to plan logistically as well as all he needs from a competition standpoint.”
The deal was brokered by Gordon, the winningest driver on Indy's 2.5-mile oval with five NASCAR victories, and McLaren Racing boss Zak Brown, who will will field the car for Larson in conjunction with Hendrick Motorsports and Larson's sponsor from NASCAR.
When Brown first approached Gavin Ward, McLaren’s new racing director, he wasn't sure about expanding the team's Indy 500 fleet. The team this year will field four teams with regular drivers Pato O'Ward, Felix Rosenqvist, newcomer Alexander Rossi and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who claims the May 28 race will be his IndyCar finale.
Larson would be at least a fourth car next year, if not a fifth for McLaren.
“I said, ‘Well, if you gave me Kyle Larson to put in it, I’d definitely want to do it,’” Ward said. “Little did I know it was even a possibility. I was just joking. And then it was, ‘We’ll find a way to make it happen if you can do that.’ Lo and behold.”
Larson, considered one of the most versatile racers in the U.S. because of his extensive background in dirt track racing, has 21 career NASCAR Cup Series wins, including two so far this season. His 10 wins in 2021 earned him his first Cup title, and last weekend he was celebrated as one of NASCAR's 75 greatest drivers.
To run the Indy 500, Larson will also attempt “The Double” by racing in NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway the same night. Five drivers have previously tried it, the last of them Kurt Busch in 2014, and only Tony Stewart in 2001 was able to complete all 1,100 miles.
“I wanted to be patient and kind of wait for the timing to feel right. It feels right,” Larson said. “Jeff kind of told me that I get to live out a dream of his. That’s really special also to me. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world, so you want to be a part of the big ones. Hopefully someday be a winner of a big event.”
Larson had his seat fit in an Indy car but has yet to do testing or simulator work. Nonetheless, he was busy Thursday, soaking in the day of practice with the McLaren team and debriefing with his future teammates.
As exciting as the buildup already is, Larson is looking forward to racing the Indy 500 in front of his father, Mike.
“It really more than anybody makes my dad really proud. That’s something that’s special to me," Larson said. "There’s definitely no bigger race to him than the Indy 500. I know he’s wanted me to do it for a very long time.
“It’s going to be really special to see him kind of see me during driver introductions and stuff like that. He’s a crier, so he’ll probably not even be able to watch the race, because he’ll have tears in his eyes the whole time. That’s the thing that’s most special to me at this point, knowing I’m in the Indy 500 is making him proud.”
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