It’s being labeled a “Race of Two Worlds” by McLaren.
An unprecedented event in motorsports, the Bruce McLaren-founded organization is undertaking the supreme task of running both the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and the Monaco Grand Prix – the crown jewel events, respectively, in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula One.
With two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso competing at Indianapolis with McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda in the classic papaya orange No. 29 Honda this month, Zak Brown, the executive director of McLaren Technology Group, has been encouraged by the efforts of all involved.
“It's been fantastic,” Brown said in a teleconference today. “The team has done, both McLaren and Andretti Autosport, an outstanding job. They have had, so far, kind of a textbook month of May. Obviously, the race is the hardest part and the longest part.
“We’ve got to get through it and get through it successfully. But so far, the welcoming that we've had, the competitive nature in which we're executing, has been great. It's been a great experience.”
This year marks the first time since 1979 that a McLaren entry has competed in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Alonso has been very competitive, earning fifth in qualifying and sparking hopes of McLaren grabbing its first Indy 500 victory since Johnny Rutherford in 1976. (Brown is shown above left with Rutherford, who is serving as a McLaren ambassador this month.)
With Alonso competing at “The Racing Capital of the World” this weekend, his Formula One team is leaning on 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button in replacement duty at Monaco – a place McLaren has more victories than any other team (15). Brown will be at Monaco until Saturday night, then fly across the Atlantic and arrive in Indianapolis after 3 a.m. on race morning.
"I'll go for a quick shower and a change of uniform, go to the racetrack nice and early, take it all in and enjoy it, then go to sleep," he said with a laugh.
Brown said the INDYCAR team that was “slapped together” has exceeded expectations and been on par with the very best since practice began May 15 the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
“The part that's impressed me the most is that it has all gone so well so far, which is all the credit to the people at McLaren, the people at Andretti and the people at INDYCAR,” said Brown. “It feels like we've crammed about 12 months of planning successfully into one month. Usually that's a recipe for disaster. The willingness, contribution, collaboration between those three entities has been outstanding, on and off the track. That's why I think everything's gone so well, is everyone has played their part.”
Brown, the renowned motorsports marketing executive who joined McLaren this season, downplayed his role in making Alonso’s bid to complete the second leg of racing’s career triple crown – winning at Monaco, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans – a reality.
“It might have been my wild and crazy idea, but it took the bravery of my bosses to say ‘yes,’ it took Fernando wanting to do it,” said Brown, 45.” Once you got past ‘the deal's done,’ everyone at McLaren Honda, we've probably got 30 people that are contributing to the Indianapolis 500 project in one way, shape or form.
“Then, of course, Andretti's team and INDYCAR's team. Whether it's been a press conference or a test or qualifying, partner activation, everything has just gone really well, which is making me nervous for the race.”
To date, only Graham Hill has accomplished the triple crown. Brown said Alonso’s focus, however, is strictly on Sunday’s race and nothing more.
“Our approach, and Fernando's approach, is to just keep doing what he's doing, which is head down, very focused, one day at a time,” said Brown. “You set out goals for that day. So far, we've hit those individual kind of daily goals.
“Now he's got to get through the race. He was a little disappointed in qualifying, which is good. It shows how much he wants to be at the front. I think he believes he could have been (on) the front row. We had done an engine change in the morning and there's some tuning that needed to be done during qualifying. He's going out there trying to win the race.”
The more experience Alonso has collected on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the more confident he has become, Brown said. And no one should rule the Spaniard out just because he is an Indianapolis 500 rookie.
“Because it's gone as well as it has – and he's clearly very fast, has a great car – we're going in trying to get a great result,” Brown said. “We're going for the win, just like 32 other drivers are.
“I think, because things have gone well, we've got a good chance. But as we discussed earlier, so do a dozen other drivers. So, we're going to go in, he's going to race hard, he's going to go for it. I think at Indianapolis, anything can happen.”
The final practice before the race takes place on Miller Lite Carb Day at 11 a.m. ET Friday and airs live on NBCSN. Coverage of the 101st Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.