Tony Kanaan Kyle Larson

An assortment of cameras and papaya-dressed Arrow McLaren staff members gathered on pit lane Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in support of Kyle Larson’s first day driving an NTT INDYCAR SERIES machine. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion absorbed it all.

Of greater significance to Tony Kanaan, who is Arrow McLaren’s new sporting director, was the communication being fed to Larson. Kanaan finally decided Larson had enough for Day 1.

“Think about it,” Kanaan described after the three-hour Rookie Orientation Program ended. “You have a (steering) wheel with 25 buttons, then you have the weight jacker, front bar, rear bar. You have telemetry you can analyze.

“Engineers, they’re just trying to give (the driver) all that, which is way too much information.”

Kanaan knew that not because he was an INDYCAR SERIES driver for nearly half of his life, but because he was at Chip Ganassi Racing when seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson arrived at IMS to prepare for his first Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Johnson’s rookie test was in October 2021.

Plus, Kanaan said he has been that “new driver” in assorted series as his day job slowed.

“Every weekend I had to reset my head,” he said. “Different wheel, different car.

“(Larson) just raced (a sprint car Tuesday night at Lincoln Park Speedway), won a championship (there), comes here, you get the thing. It’s too much overthinking. Then why are we going to feed him all that (information) right now because we’re going to come back here next April. (He’s) not going to remember all that.”

Once Kanaan had expressed his opinion within the organization, he followed Larson back to the garage during a short break. His message to the 31-year-old superstar was basic.

“Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the racetrack,” Kanaan said. “I didn’t want him to him to miss the first moment because I think it’s extremely special. I remember my first time here (in 2002). But also, he was here to pass ROP.

“The (steering) wheel, we have six months to figure (it) out. We’ll talk now that he physically saw it as a driver. We probably understand a lot more than the engineer giving the data, the picture of the wheel. (I said), ‘Go feel the buttons. Hey, do you want the pit lane speedometer back here?’ Now, it’s not OK anymore. You have to have experience.

“That’s why I was trying to tell (the team) just to let him enjoy the game. Now we’ll start working.”

Officially, Larson’s next chance to drive an Arrow McLaren car – soon to be known as the No. 17 Chevrolet -- will be in April when the NTT INDYCAR SERIES stages its annual Indianapolis 500 Open Test at IMS. But Kanaan said there could be an earlier opportunity for Larson, and it would be fair to think a test at Texas Motor Speedway could be held. The series usually directs its new drivers there before coming to IMS – that was Johnson’s path, too – so Larson’s drive Thursday was somewhat of a deviation.

Larson completed 72 laps and all three of the rookie phases, largely efficiently. His fastest lap was 217.898 mph, although achieving a top-end speed was not important on this day. Like Linus Lundqvist, Tom Blomqvist and Marcus Armstrong said Wednesday, the hardest part of the ROP session was the first, slowest phase.

“When you’re running more throttle, it’s easier to kind of hit your target,” Larson said. “So, the slower the speed, it was just kind of hard for me to figure out my timing. I would roll out on the straightaway, then I’d run wide open through (Turns) 1 or 2. I’d look at my dash and, OK, I think I’m OK for (Turns) 3 and 4.

“I’d come off (Turn) 4, I’m too fast, and (I’d) have to slow down a lot … Once you went faster you’re running more throttle, it’s easier to stay within that window.”

Larson said he would need to spend more time with “the pit road side of things,” areas of the track where the steering is slower, turning is more elongated and the braking comes into play.

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s five-time Brickyard 400 winner who once pursued racing in the “500,” said he didn’t offer too much to Larson before the test, but he has many questions now that it’s over.

“I’m looking forward to downloading with him a little bit further, just about the process and what does that grip feel like the first time going into a corner, cold tires on the apron, more just race chat stuff,” said Gordon, the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, which employs Larson in NASCAR and now here. “I’ve gotten pretty comfortable in the new role that I’m in.

“Being a race car driver (but) not being in the current cars (with) the competition that they’re currently in, my input is more what we can do to make the race team stronger and better – the competition, the people around him, the tools, just providing the resources. That’s what Rick (Hendrick) taught me in his role as an owner. That’s what I want to be there for.”

As an example, Gordon said he spent more time looking at the Arrow McLaren car Larson was driving, considering where the sponsor decals would be positioned when it’s in all its glory in the spring. He also wanted to make sure all those cameras at the pit box were capturing the right kind of content.

“When me and Kyle talk, (it will be) about his last sprint car race, about the experience today, then we’ll do the same when we get to Las Vegas (for this weekend’s NASCAR event), talk about the Cup car this weekend,” he said.

Larson will be ready for that conversation.

“Yeah, it was really cool,” he said of driving at IMS. “I wanted to get up to speed – I didn’t want to take too long to get up to the 205 (mph) mark (because) I didn’t want to get made fun of for ‘why did it take so long?’ I did put pressure on myself to get (my) confidence built up here pretty quickly.”

Now he has experienced it, and he will be ready for all that additional information and the other aspects of the sport that come with it.

“I look forward to getting around (other) cars, feeling how the dirty air affects things,” he said.