Kyle Larson’s ‘Double’ Honors Old School Racers


Sunday’s running of stock car racing’s longest race will bring with it all manner of drama, for reasons that have nothing to do with the rumored visit of President Trump to the event. In the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, Kyle Larson will attempt a rare feat that will test his racing skill — and his endurance.

If all goes to plan, the 2021 champion of NASCAR’s premier series will run 600 miles in a stock car Sunday evening, after running in the famous Indianapolis 500 that afternoon. That Larson had the desire to accept the challenge presented by this unique “Double” speaks to his old-school willingness to race and compete anytime, anywhere.

New Guy on the Track

For Larson to accomplish his feat will require no small amount of ability. A low-to-the-ground, sleek open-wheel car drives far differently than a big, bulky stock car. Larson had no experience in an open-wheel car prior to beginning preparations for his Indy 500 appearance, and the numerous rain delays during last week’s practice sessions hindered his chances to get up to speed, literally and figuratively.

Moving from one style of racing to another has not proved easy, as skill sets often do not translate and helpful techniques in one discipline may turn into bad habits in another. A few years ago, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson decided to drive Indy cars after retiring from stock car racing. He struggled mightily, with a best finish of 17th in his first season, and didn’t even try running the Indy 500 his first year because of his unease with the much higher speeds Indy cars run compared to stock cars on oval tracks.

But thus far at least, Larson has flourished, qualifying fifth in the 33-car field for Sunday’s Indy 500. His success stems in large part from his willingness, and desire, to drive and race practically anything on four wheels. Apart from his NASCAR feats and his Indy 500 “side hustle,” Larson spends numerous weeknights racing dirt cars and also co-drove a winning entry in the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race in 2015.

Old School Competitor

In his competitive desire, Larson resembles the racers of yesteryear, who would go anywhere to get their racing fix. An ESPN article on Larson’s “Double” attempt noted that four drivers have attempted to race the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. (Only Tony Stewart completed all 1,100 miles, in 2001; in the other cases, crashes or mechanical failures prevented drivers from running all the laps.)

But the story also highlighted a little-known fact: Two generations ago, multiple racers drove in both races — just not on the same day. Until 1974, when the Memorial Day holiday became fixed on a Monday, the Indy 500 ran on the holiday itself, while the stock car race ran on the nearest Sunday. Because the two events didn’t run in direct conflict, stock car racers like Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, and Neil Bonnett tried to qualify for the Indy 500. The most successful: Donnie Allison, who won stock car racing’s longest race, then finished fourth in the Indy 500 a few days later. (His brother Bobby also attempted the “Double” during this era.)

At the same time that NASCAR drivers attempted to conquer Indy, open-wheel drivers also dabbled in other forms of racing. Both A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, famous Indy 500 winners, won stock car racing’s biggest race, the Daytona 500; in fact, Mario won at Daytona two years before his Indy 500 triumph. Foyt also won the 24 Hours of LeMans, while Andretti went on to win a Formula One world championship and remains the last American driver to win an F1 race, back in 1978.

Kurt Busch, the last driver to attempt the “Double” a decade ago, told ESPN that the corporate nature of modern-day racing encourages specialization. Some teams will even contractually forbid their drivers from racing in other series, to prevent them from getting injured in another team’s car. But Busch said Larson’s feat makes him a throwback:

The way the racing business works now, at least the way it has worked as my generation was coming up, they want you to specialize. Us racers, we hate that. We want to drive everything before our careers are over. That’s the way that Mario Andretti and A.J. Foy and Cale Yarborough, all those old-school guys, did it. Kyle Larson has always been one of those guys. So to see him do the Double, it will be fine. … Maybe this will open the door for guys who deserve a shot from being denied in the future.

Overcoming Obstacles

To win either or both races on Sunday, Larson will need to excel. Both his cars have shown speed, but the physical toll of spending hours in two hot cars will prove taxing, with dehydration a potential concern.

With only about a two-hour window between the end of the Indy 500 and the start of the race in Charlotte, getting back and forth will also take some logistical luck. Apart from the potential security delays associated with a Trump visit, Larson has to fly into the Charlotte track on short notice, and the Secret Service often closes off airspace around a presidential event. The weather could prove an obstacle. With rain and thunderstorms in the forecast for Indianapolis Sunday, Larson could have to leave the Indy 500 to make it to Charlotte if the former gets delayed.

But three years after an unfortunate off-track incident nearly short-circuited his racing career, Kyle Larson is gaining newfound attention for all the right reasons on the track. He has tackled all the hoopla associated with his unique “Double” with aplomb, even milking a cow at a press event on Tuesday (seriously). And when he finally takes to the track for two of the year’s biggest races on Sunday, he will have fans in both the stock car and open-wheel ranks cheering him on.

Christopher Jacobs
Christopher Jacobs
Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book The Case Against Single Payer.

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