INDIANAPOLIS — Four custom McLaren GTs lined the curb in front of St. Elmo's Steak House, the see-and-be-seen spot in downtown Indianapolis, 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 the Indianapolis 500 into a battle with Chip Ganassi Racing, the reigning winning team, which, like McLaren, has four strong chances to win on Sunday in front of some 300,000 spectators.
It has become the best rivalry in IndyCar, the one between Ganassi himself and Zak Brown, the head of McLaren Racing. Their long-running feud is just one of many highlights from an emotional week ahead of the 107th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing":
— The cars of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal have been slow and his son, Graham, failed to make the race. But Graham Rahal received a reprieve when Katherine Legge, the only woman in the race and his teammate, 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 Graham 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. The four-time winner of the race 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 British driver made the field. Agustin Canapino, his rookie teammate from Argentina, has been shockingly fast.
Then there's the lingering contract situation between reigning Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and Ganassi. Ericsson wants to stay with the team and the Swede is not 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 this Sunday, said his team has responded so well to four cars at Indianapolis that he'd consider running four full-time entries next year.
Who would he put in that fourth car? In Brown's opinion, Ericsson is the top free agent on the market and is shocked he might be available. Brown, who only 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.
McLaren already is getting Alex Palou, who won the 2021 series title for Ganassi and starts on the pole 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 had to fire him in 2020 when he was caught using the N-word in an online racing game.
Brown has now 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," he said. "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 following 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.”
Palou will lead the field to green and his three Ganassi teammates all start inside the first four rows. Same for the McLaren drivers, with Felix Rosenqvist their highest qualifier at third.
The two teams have a combined five Indy 500-winning drivers, and many believe it will be a shootout between them. The teams themselves? They think the race is wide open with 15 to 20 legitimate contenders in the 33-car field.
“I think the Penske's are going to be there, they are going to have very strong race cars,” said McLaren star Pato O'Ward, referring to Team Penske's contingent of reigning series champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin.
Power at 12th was the only Penske driver to advance in qualifying to the pole shootout rounds, and the 18-time Indy 500-winning team was soundly out-qualified by Foyt, the lowest-ranked team in IndyCar.
But the Penske cars seemed much faster in race setup and Power was third-fastest 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 starts 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.”
The final two-hour practice also showed that Andretti Autosport is far better in race trim than qualifying, which Marco Andretti called an embarrassing effort. By the end of the day, Colton Herta thought an Andretti should be in the mix for the win.
“I think just the car itself just doesn’t have speed, so obviously it gets exposed in qualifying, but during the race it doesn’t really matter,” said Herta, who will start 21st. “It felt good when I was following cars, and from where we’re starting, it might take a little bit to lead, so hopefully we’ll make some good passes and move up.”
Palou, meanwhile, is the FanDuel Sportsbook favorite and badly wants to win his first Indy 500. He was second to Helio Castroneves in 2021, and is coming off a victory two weeks ago on the Indianapolis road course.
“It’s been amazing," Palou said. “This start of the season, especially the month of May, couldn’t be better.”