How Soon is Too Soon?

The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is still over 130 days away, and we have already received confirmation in a one-off ride for next year’s 108th Running. NASCAR’s Kyle Larson was announced last Thursday for Arrow McLaren’s stable of drivers for the 2024 Indianapolis 500.

While that generated a ton of buzz within the fan base of the NTT IndyCar Series, was I being too pessimistic in wondering why they announced this so soon?

Zak Brown has shown in the past that he likes to make a big splash with signings, sometimes even long before the driver is free from his or her current contract. Many people have been keeping an eye on “The Kyles” of NASCAR – Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch – and the possibility of one or both of them running in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Knowing that there will be twenty-seven fulltime cars on the grid of each IndyCar race, there are very few openings for one-offs.

Tony Kanaan has already been confirmed to a fourth seat at Arrow McLaren for the 107th Running this May. One of two potential seats at Dreyer & Reinbold have been filled by Stefan Wilson, and Marco Andretti has long been penciled in for a fifth car at Andretti Autosport. Ed Carpenter will run in a third car at his own Ed Carpenter Racing. Beth Paretta has already made her intentions known that she wants to run Simona de Silvestro paired with one potential Chevy team.

As you can see, seats are filling up fast, much faster than we’ve seen in early January in quite a while. While thirty-three cars does not appear to be any problem, the number of available engine leases do present an obstacle to drivers that don’t have anything nailed down yet – especially if they are contractually tied to one of the engine manufacturers from another series.

Chevy and Honda are both firm in their stance that they will not go above eighteen engines for the Month of May. That leaves a very narrow window between what we fans consider the minimum of thirty-three cars, and the engine manufacturers set maximum of thirty-six. It presents more of a problem if there are thirty-three confirmed, but there is not yet a thrity-fourth entry. No team, driver or sponsor wants to be the only one left out of the 500. Having thirty-four confirmed makes it easier to attract a thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth entry.

That’s a long way of saying that it was looking more and more like both of The Kyles were going to be shut out of the 2023 Indianapolis 500. So, Arrow McLaren got proactive and signed Larson for next year’s 500, which is still over sixteen months away. My question is, why now?

My good friend Paul Dalbey of pointed out that there is a recent history of long-term Indianapolis 500 announcements not working out. When we arrived for the 2015 IndyCar Grand Prix, the big announcement in the IMS Media Center was about Grace Autosport – a proposed all-female team, headed up by Beth Paretta with Katherine Legge as the driver.

This team promised to be on the grid for the 100th Running, in May of 2016. While the press conference and press release touted many prominent females already in place within the team, it quietly mentioned that updates to team sponsors and personnel would follow in the coming months. I don’t recall hearing another mention of Grace Autosport as the next year passed. Needless to say, Katherine Legge, Beth Paretta nor Grace Autosport had any part of the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

In August of 2012, AJ Foyt Enterprises announced that Chase Austin would drive a Foyt entry in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. While it made a big splash that Austin would drive for AJ’s team – the entry never saw the light of day. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but I’m sure it involved sponsorship or lack thereof. Instead, it was rookie Conor Daly on the entry list in the second Foyt car at the beginning of May.

Both of these examples involved teams that had a small budget or no budget at all. They also featured drivers that were not household names, outside of hardcore racing circles.

That is not the case with Thursday’s announcement. There are few bigger names in racing than McLaren, and you would be hard-pressed to find even the most casual racing fan that had not heard of Kyle Larson.

That’s why I think this will be different than those other early announcements that didn’t pan out. Lack of money won’t be a problem, and the McLaren marketing machine can have the next sixteen months to remind everyone that Larson will run the 2024 Indianapolis 500.

While most of the reaction has been positive, I’ve seen a surprisingly good bit of negative responses to this announcement. One reaction on Twitter referred to Larson as “…the second coming like all the fan boys profess her is…”. Others called him an interloper. Then of course, there are those who will never forgive Larson for the racial slur he uttered while practicing on iRacing back in 2020.

Personally, I’m glad Larson is coming. The 2021 NASCAR Cup champion has one of the most complete racing resumes among any current driver. Not only is he a NASCAR champion, he has won in USAC midgets, sprints and Silver Crown races. Looking back, this will be the best Indianapolis 500 ride for a successful USAC driver since Tony Stewart drove for John Menard and then Chip Ganassi. Not only will he have a huge NASCAR following for next year’s 500, but he will have a local USAC following as well.

With his NASCAR car-owner, Rick Hendrick, involved – this will bring an even higher level of awareness. If Larson has success, perhaps other prominent NASCAR owners will get involved in IndyCar.

I don’t think I want Kyle Larson to show up and beat the IndyCar regulars next May, but I would like for him to have a good showing; much like I wanted Fernando Alonso to have a good showing when he showed up as a rookie in 2017. The Legions of the Miserable can squawk as much as they want to, but I see this as a win-win for everyone involved.

Was it announced too soon? Probably not. I’m not sure how they could’ve kept it quiet for the next year. I just hope it doesn’t fall apart in the next sixteen months,

George Phillips

3 Responses to “How Soon is Too Soon?”

  1. Bif Buffington Says:

    In other news, happy 88th birthday to Anthony Joseph Foyt, Junior, born January 16, 1935, eight days after Elvis Presley.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Certainly an exciting announcement, even if it is for next year. I think Larson will be a quick study and have a solid run. While dirt short tracks are certainly in his wheelhouse, the frequency at which he has won when he’s moonlighted in the the extremely competitive World of Outlaws is remarkable. He’s won there 1 out of 5 times. If you can do that, you can probably find speed in anything.

    I suspect Chase Austin may have been quietly told to get more experience before attempting Indy. He was a career minor league stock car racer who had 4 Lights starts with a best of 8th. His backing for future 500 runs may have evaporated as a result of this, though he did run the Freedom 100 in 2013 and 2014, finding the wall both times (though he managed to finish in ’13). I suspect the same may have been said to Ryan Phinny as well, another early 500 entry announcement that quietly just never came to fruition (he had 6 Lights starts, none on ovals). But that’s all I have, suspicions.

  3. I wonder if there’s a chance Beth Paretta could partner with DRR for their second car? I don’t really see any other possibilities for the 500. I don’t particularly trust Zak Brown but with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon actively involved hopefully Kyle Larson will be ok.

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