INDIANAPOLIS — Four custom McLaren GTs lined the curb in front of St. Elmo Steak House, the downtown spot to see and be seen, in a massive flex by the race team trying to win the Indianapolis 500.
The rebuilt, rebranded and rebounded Arrow McLaren organization has turned the buildup to IndyCar's premier event into a battle with Chip Ganassi Racing, the team that celebrated its fifth Indy 500 victory when Marcus Ericsson won a year ago. Both teams have four strong chances to win on Sunday in front of some 300,000 spectators at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It has become the best rivalry in the American open-wheel series — specifically, the one between Ganassi himself and Zak Brown, the head of McLaren Racing. Their long-running feud is just one of many highlights from the emotional week-plus ahead of the 107th running of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
— Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's cars have been slow. That team's ownership includes 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, whose son Graham failed to make the lineup during last-chance qualifying on the 2.5-mile oval a week ago. However, the younger Rahal received a reprieve when Katherine Legge, the only woman in the race and one of his teammates, ran into Stefan Wilson during practice, knocking him out of the race with a fractured back. Dreyer & Reinbold needed a replacement for Wilson, and a deal was struck to get Rahal into the Chevrolet-powered car despite his long association with Honda.
— A.J. Foyt came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he grieves the April death of his wife of 68 years, Lucy. One of only four drivers to win the Indy 500 four times — his 1977 victory made him the first, following wins in 1961, 1964 and 1967 — was rewarded with two fast cars and Santino Ferrucci starting fourth on Sunday.
— Callum Ilott was near panic ahead of qualifying when he felt his car was too dangerous to drive. Juncos Hollinger Racing made an emergency change to a different car, and the 24-year-old British driver made the field; he'll start 28th after finishing 32nd in his Indy 500 debut in 2022. Agustin Canapino, his rookie teammate from Argentina, has been shockingly fast and will start 27th in his first Indy 500.
— Then there's the lingering contract situation between Ericsson and Ganassi. The 32-year-old Swedish driver wants to stay with the team and isn't happy he hasn't been re-signed yet.
That is where it gets good between Ganassi and Brown, who scheduled his Friday news conference to begin 15 minutes before Ganassi's traditional availability on the Yard of Bricks. Brown, who poached 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan and a sponsor from Ganassi to run a fourth McLaren for him on Sunday, said his team has responded so well to four cars at Indianapolis that he'd consider running four full-time entries for the 2024 IndyCar season.
Who would he put in that fourth car? In Brown's opinion, Ericsson is the top free agent on the market and Brown is shocked Ericsson might be available. Brown, who just expanded McLaren to three cars this year, said he will decide by July if McLaren will run four cars next year; Ganassi holds the exclusive negotiating rights with Ericsson until August.
'PEOPLE LOSE THINGS'
McLaren already is getting Alex Palou — who won the 2021 series title for Ganassi and will start in pole position Sunday — for next season. Brown also has signed NASCAR star Kyle Larson to race the 500 for him next year, and it was Ganassi who developed Larson in stock cars but fired the driver in 2020 after Larson used a racial slur in an online racing game that was being streamed live.
And now Brown has made it clear he'd like a shot at landing Ericsson, too. Ericsson actually entered IndyCar with the team that is now Arrow McLaren but signed with Ganassi before Brown took over.
"Personally, I don't think people steal things. I think people lose things. And yes, Marcus has done an outstanding job," Brown said. "I'm a little surprised, given how strong things are commercially, that his current team doesn't have the commercial confidence that they can sell the Indy 500 championship contender and sign him up.
"I understand they probably have a little bit of time, so I'm sure they're working at it. But I wouldn't let him go if he was driving for me, and I would have the commercial confidence that I could get the sponsorship."
Ganassi, who was clearly agitated last week by questions about Ericsson's contract, wasn't any more forthcoming after Brown's remarks.
"I focus on results around here. I focus on our team. Contracts will take care of themselves. It's not on my radar screen," he said. "I want to focus on winning the race right now. Like, I can't get that across to you guys. I don't get the things you guys want to talk about, you know, whether gossipy or contractually. It's just not on my screen all the time."
"We focus every day on our team, on our team performance," he added. "That's what we're here to do. It's called racing."
A TWO-TEAM RACE?
Palou, listed as the favorite by FanDuel Sportsbook, will lead the field to green, and his three Ganassi teammates all start inside the first four rows. Same for the Arrow McLaren drivers, with Felix Rosenqvist the team's highest qualifier at third.
The rival organizations have a combined five Indy 500-winning drivers, and many believe it will be a shootout between them.
The two teams themselves? They think the race is wide open, with 15 to 20 legitimate contenders in the 33-car field.
"I think the Penskes are going to be there, they are going to have very strong race cars," said Arrow McLaren star Pato O'Ward, referring to Team Penske's contingent of reigning IndyCar champion Will Power, two-time series champ Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin.
Power, at 12th, was the only Penske driver to advance in qualifying to the pole shootout rounds, and the organization with a record 18 Indy 500 wins was soundly outqualified by Foyt, the lowest-ranked team in IndyCar.
But the Penske cars seemed much faster in race setup and Power was third on the speed chart in Friday's final practice session. Who was faster? Ganassi drivers Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon, who have three Indy 500 wins between them.
"There's no rush with 500 miles," said Newgarden, who is 0-for-11 in the Indy 500 and will start 17th. "You've just got to have a really good consistent day and march your way forward. We are where we are, and we've got to make the most of it, and I think we've got plenty of time to get up there."
It will require getting past cars from Ganassi, Arrow McLaren and others in a race where the motivation will be mighty for every driver with any legitimate shot at victory.
Palou is in the race for the fourth time and has two top-10 finishes — he was second to Helio Castroneves in 2021 — but badly wants to win. He used an aggressive pass early in the GMR Grand Prix two weeks ago to finish first on the road course at IMS, and now he'll go for a win on the storied oval.
"It's been amazing," Palou said. "This start of the season, especially the month of May, couldn't be better."