Sports

What Larson can learn from past Indy 500-Coke 600 Doubles

The Memorial Day Double. Double Duty. The Indy-Charlotte Double. The 500/600 Double.

What Kyle Larson will attempt to do this weekend — contest the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar’s biggest race, and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR‘s longest race, on the same day — has so many nicknames that reading the list will leave you with double vision. That’s fitting. Because Larson’s goal will be not only to complete the Double, perhaps even win one or both ends of it, but also do what he can to ensure he and the two teams depending on him are not placed in double jeopardy.

To understand the difficulty of driving two races on two very different racetracks in two race cars that might as well be from two different galaxies, let’s look back at the two-lane road that was paved for Larson by his NASCAR/IndyCar double duty forefathers. A five-pack of drivers who have attempted — or will attempt — to wrap their two hands around the steering wheels of two dissimilar machines and depending on a fleet of other varied vehicles to get from one event to the other, all while staring at the weather radar, gloved fingers crossed.

The Early Years: 1911-93

The Indianapolis 500 took its first green flag on May 30, 1911, on what was then known as Decoration Day. The 500, like Decoration Day, was always on the 30th, no matter what day of the week that fell upon, and quickly became recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. In 1960, NASCAR ran its first World 600, also scheduled around Decoration Day, but instead of the 30th it was held on the closest Sunday to the holiday.

The separate dates allowed for a handful of crossover moves. NASCAR stars such as Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Neil Bonnett attempted to qualify at Indy but came up short. Drivers such as Bobby Johns and “Chargin'” Charlie Glotzbach also chose to skip Charlotte to concentrate on Indy efforts. NASCAR legend Bobby Allison made a pair of Indy starts. In 1965, Ford flew in NASCAR’s famed Wood Brothers crew to pit the cars of Johns and Jim Clark. Clark won the race, which was a huge boost toward his second Formula One world title (Indy was included in the F1 schedule then).

From 1967 to 1971, a total of six drivers ran both races. The first was Cale Yarborough, suffering a mechanical failure at Charlotte and finishing 41st, and three days later finished 17th at Indy after a late spin. In 1969, LeeRoy Yarbrough won at Charlotte but finished 23rd at Indy. The most successful Double Duty racer was Donnie Allison, who won the World 600 on May 24, 1970, and finished fourth at Indy six days later. The next year he earned top-six finishes in back-to-back days, running sixth behind Al Unser in the Indy 500 on Saturday, finishing second behind Glotzbach at Charlotte, and then flying back to Indy for the awards dinner that night.

In 1974, following the standardization of Memorial Day as a Monday holiday, the Indy 500 permanently moved to Sunday, the same day as what was about to be renamed the Coca-Cola 600. Double Duty was parked.

“It was fun, but it would also kick your butt, even when the races were several days apart,” Allison remembered in January on the night of his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “But me and Cale and brother Bobby, we looked at running both as a badge of honor. Like, OK, you are a real racer’s racer if you can pull that off. And Kyle Larson certainly fits that description, though I don’t know how he’s stacking up that schedule to do it. Just tell him to get some fluids in him. I think I sweated out half myself, and I had time to recover. He won’t.”

The OG, John Andretti: 1994

Hydration wasn’t John Andretti’s problem on May 29, 1994. It was quite the opposite. The man needed somewhere to pee.

The modern-age Double Duty godfather had no plans to attempt both races in 1994. He had entered the season merely hoping to secure a ride for one or the other. On the NASCAR side, he had landed a ride with the sponsor-less and cash-strapped team of owner Billy Hagan. But he also had made a half-dozen Indy 500 starts and was riding a streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes. That’s why Charlotte Motor Speedway president and P.T. Barnum-esque promoter Humpy Wheeler called Andretti into his office that spring. Wheeler said he had done the math and believed it was possible for someone to run both races, all 1,100 miles, in one day, and he told Andretti that if anyone could pull it off, it was him.

The seed was planted. Andretti, son of Aldo and nephew of Mario, couldn’t resist. So, he went to his godfather, A.J. Foyt, and secured a car for Indy. Then he mapped out a schedule of 11 flights, crisscrossing the 580-mile distance between Concord, North Carolina and Speedway, Indiana. Then he cut a deal with a private jet company to manage that crisscrossing … and, oh yeah, the much longer, 2,220-mile trips the weekend before, between the Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway and Indy 500 qualifying.

On race day, Andretti finished a solid 10th at Indy after starting on Row 3 and running as high as third. From there, the real race was on.

In a striking contrast to Larson’s harmonic cross-series coordination efforts this year, in 1994, Indianapolis Motor Speedway refused to allow Andretti to land a helicopter at the racetrack. That cost him 20 precious minutes, going from a golf cart to a van and through race day traffic to a chopper blocks away from the track. Once he was in the air, however, he received help from air traffic controllers; a pilot who had once wheeled Air Force One; and Wheeler, who not only allowed Andretti to land inside Charlotte Motor Speedway but had a helicopter parked at the end of the runway in Statesville, North Carolina, and had it buzz the grandstand en route to a touchdown on the front straightaway to the roar of the crowd, all just as the national anthem was beginning.

“The good news is that we were smart enough to have IV bags on the plane so that I would be plenty hydrated and I felt great when we got there,” Andretti recalled in 2019, roughly a year before he died of cancer. “The bad news is that I was too hydrated and I had to pee so bad, but there was no time. They ran me to the car. I’ve never been one of those guys who can just pee in his suit during a race, so I was dying. The crankshaft broke halfway through the race and we were out. I was bummed, but I was also really happy because I could finally get to the bathroom!”

Smoke on the Water (he didn’t drink), Tony Stewart: 1999, 2001

Tony Stewart spent the mid-’90s juggling two big league day jobs as a full-time racer in the Indy Racing League and NASCAR’s Busch (now Xfinity) Series, winning the 1997 IRL championship while also making the transition into his first ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. So, when Gibbs gave Stewart permission to run the 1999 Indy 500 for his old IRL crew chief Larry Curry, the transition of getting back into an IndyCar was easy.

Running both races was not.

“Man, I was such an idiot that first year. Nutrition was not really my thing, and I sure proved it,” Stewart recalls, laughing, and reminding how proud he used to be of his three-trips-to-McDonald’s-a-day diet. “The morning of the 500, I think I had a couple of mini bagels. I put an energy bar in my car, but when I dug it out, it was all melted from the heat. On the plane to Charlotte, I drank a Gatorade and maybe ate a hamburger or something. That was it. I swear to you, when we got the final 100 laps of the 600, I was hallucinating. A piece of trash flew by the car and in my mind, it looked like a pink-spotted elephant running down the back straightaway.”

Still, he finished ninth at Indy, although four laps down, and followed that with a fourth-place run in Charlotte over a total of 7 hours, 13 minutes and 41 seconds of racing. When he climbed from his car, Stewart’s legs gave out and he collapsed.

“I said that night there was no way I was doing it again, but two years later I had the chance with Chip Ganassi at Indy. Joe said I could, but this time he was getting me help.”

Gibbs, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, called the Carolina Panthers and recruited a trainer to spend the entire month of May with Stewart, monitoring and coaching up his food and water intake, as well as his sleep habits. The racer responded with sixth- and third-place finishes, becoming the first and still only driver to complete all 1,100 miles.

“That’ll be the biggest challenge for Kyle, and it’s probably the part he’s not yet thought about, not the nutrition or any of that, but the length of the day,” Stewart says of Larson, who he believes could win one or even both races. “And the adrenaline spikes. He’s going to have one after Indy. He’s going to have one during driver introductions before Indy. He’s going to have one when he lands at Charlotte before he even gets in the car … but he’s driving a great race car at Indy [Arrow McLaren Racing] and he’s driving a great race car in Charlotte [Hendrick Motorsports]. He’s got a great group of people around him. You have to have the people to help you manage all of that. Like I did.”

Mr. Five-Time (sort of), Robby Gordon: 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004

Robby Gordon has won in stock cars, open wheels, motorcycles, sports cars and off-road trucks, so it seems only natural that he would be the racer who has attempted Double Duty the most. In fact, he’s the one who officially turned that phrase into racing jargon and even sold “Double Duty” fan packages to ride along with him on his flight from Indiana to North Carolina. Gordon has pulled off more two-race weekends than can be listed, from Indy Racing League/CART double entries that crossed over political divisions to NASCAR-to-Baja 1000 commutes that streaked across the U.S. map from Atlantic to Pacific.

The Californian’s first attempt was the second ever, when he ran both races in 1997, but the 500 was delayed two full days because of rain. In 2000, rain delayed the Indianapolis green flag three hours. Gordon decided to stay at Indy and let backup driver P.J. Jones start the 600. It was the right call, as Gordon finished sixth, then took over his stock car in Charlotte midrace and finished 35th. Rain also foiled his last attempt, in 2004, as Indy was red-flagged with a storm so strong it was assumed the event would be postponed, so Gordon left for Charlotte. However, the 500 was restarted; backup driver Jaques Lazier dropped out with a broken axle while Gordon finished 20th in the 600.

His other two Double Duty runs — the dry ones — were a mixed bag of finishes, although in 2002 he came within one lap of completing the full 1,100 miles.

“Unfortunately, rain is kind of the theme of my Double attempts,” Gordon recalled last month as he raced in the Stadium Super Trucks Series during IndyCar’s Long Beach Grand Prix weekend. “When I watch Larson, that’s the one thing I hope he doesn’t have to deal with. Not even the rain, but the decisions that have to be made because of the rain. For me, the childhood dream was always Indy, but for most of those years, my full-time job was in NASCAR with Richard Childress. So, making that call, of where to go when you can only run one, that’s no fun, man.”

The last Double (until now), Kurt Busch: 2014

After Gordon’s final Double Duty, Indianapolis made sweeping changes to its May schedule, including moving the waving of green flag for the first time since 1963, a full one hour later, from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Andretti, Gordon and Stewart had all cut it close to making it to Charlotte, missing prerace drivers meetings and literally running to their stock cars for the Coca-Cola 600’s 5:30 p.m. ET start. The move was made to grab a bigger West Coast TV audience (full disclosure: ESPN/ABC didn’t fight the idea), but it also eliminated the chances for Double Duty attempts from the likes of Indy 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti or even NASCAR aces Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

“This is dumbest thing I’ve seen the Indianapolis Motor Speedway do,” Stewart said at the time.

When Indy finally did move its start time back to the traditional high noon, it didn’t take long for another Double Duty attempt to go on the books. Kurt Busch, who had tested an open-wheel racer for Bobby Rahal in 2003, drove for Andretti Autosport at Indy in 2014 and wowed the IndyCar regulars as he took his time, picked his spots, and worked his way up to a sixth-place finish and Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors. His trip to Charlotte was flawless, having conferred with John Andretti and his new Cup Series car owner, Stewart. He soaked up a bag and a half of saline IV; drank a 20-ounce concoction of B12 vitamin, liquid oxygen, sugar, potassium and beet juice; scarfed down an energy bar, a bag of beef jerky and a box of raisins; and even sneaked in a 20-minute nap.

Unfortunately, none of that could help his No. 41 Chevy, which blew an engine two-thirds of the way through the 600. The next year he completed another sort of Indianapolis Double Duty, winning the Brickyard 400 for the first time.

“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,” Busch says now. “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. Foyt 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. But it’s been a decade since I did it, and it had been a decade since anyone did it before me. Maybe this will open the door for guys who deserve a shot from being denied in the future.”

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