(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

One N-word, One NASCAR Career Self-Destructed by Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson spent much of the past decade hyped as NASCAR’s next great breakout superstar. Easter Sunday, in a matter of seconds, he broke through — as that driver who said the N-word.

In just one sentence, the earthquake attached will forever rattle Larson’s career resume. Will NASCAR’s 2020 momentum wind up fractured along with it?

The epicenter of Larson’s seismic mistake came during an iRacing feed streamed April 12 that was part of Monza Madness, a race set up by fellow driver Landon Cassill. The event itself wasn’t a top-tier event but it was public, streamed live for thousands to see.

In some ways, the details feel irrelevant. The bottom line is an American athlete said, in the course of natural conversation, a racial slur in front of a live audience.

Judge for yourself. The language just rolled off the tongue. It was clear Larson had no understanding of the damage done, or the damage that word does to other people.

I’m sure Larson knows the consequences now. To be fair, the driver took Monday and made a mea culpa on Twitter, fully owning up to his actions in a heartfelt apology.

https://twitter.com/KyleLarsonRacin/status/1249732388625752065

“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Larson said. “Last night, I made a mistake and said the word that should never, ever be said. And there’s no excuse for that. I wasn’t raised that way, it’s just an awful thing to say. I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and especially the African-American community.

“I understand the damage is probably unrepairable, and I own up to that. But I just wanted to let you all know how sorry I all am. And I hope everybody is staying safe during this crazy times.”

Crazy times, indeed. But this was a crazy Larson caused. The timing of it all couldn’t have been worse; in a sports world devoid of sports, the controversy instantly became front-page news. And the economics of it all couldn’t be more obvious. Just last week, college football entered an uproar when Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach tweeted a meme of a woman knitting a noose for her husband during self-quarantine. He was lucky to avoid being fired.

How might you think major corporations would react to a NASCAR driver saying the N-word outright? In a sport driven by sponsorship and dollars coronavirus has eaten in a hurry, partnerships with Larson didn’t stand a chance.

Credit One Bank. McDonald’s. Fiserv. Chevrolet. All have severed their ties with the driver while his NASCAR employer, Chip Ganassi Racing, has suspended the 27-year-old without pay. Every sponsor on Larson’s website was removed as of this writing.

NASCAR, for its part, has suspended Larson indefinitely. When NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Jeremy Clements was suspended for a racial slur in 2013, sensitivity training was a mandatory part of his recovery; the path to reinstatement will likely be the same for Larson. He violated section 12.8.1.e in their rule book, among others, prohibiting communication that criticizes another person based on race.

“NASCAR has made diversity and inclusion a priority and will not tolerate the type of language used by Kyle Larson,” the sanctioning body said in a statement. “Our Member Conduct Guidelines are clear in this regard, and we will enforce these guidelines to maintain an inclusive environment for our entire industry and fan base.”

Problem is, first impressions are hard to break. And NASCAR has spent decades untangling itself from a long, sordid history of racism. Founder Bill France Sr. was once an ardent supporter of segregationist governor George Wallace for President. The sport’s first full-time African-American driver, Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, rarely drove to races alone and kept a pistol with him in case of violence. His lone NASCAR Cup Series win in Jacksonville, Fla. in December 1963 was given to a white driver before Scott was eventually handed the trophy.

As recently as 2016, former NASCAR CEO Brian France made news for his rather public endorsement of Republican Donald Trump for U.S. President. The move, politicizing the sport, came shortly after Trump claimed he knew nothing about white supremacist groups endorsing him. (Talk about bad timing.)

Since then, France has been booted, courtesy of an August 2018 DUI. A new leadership team led by President Steve Phelps has been on a dedicated effort to renovate and reboot the sport’s image. Encouraging TV ratings to start off 2020, along with several competitive races, seemed to indicate they were turning a corner.

Then, coronavirus put a damper on those plans, and now a top driver spouting out the N-word threatens a total wipeout.

The irony is that Larson’s the very minority the sport has been looking to promote. He’s a Japanese-American whose grandparents were forced into an internment camp in World War II, easily the most successful graduate of the sport’s Drive For Diversity program. His 2012 K&N East Series championship was the first won by anyone connected to a program intended to boost minority participation and inclusion.

Two years later, Larson was NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, armed with millions in sponsorship and a capable car owner in Chip Ganassi. But for all his hype, this California dirt racer always seemed to stumble one step short. Seven years into his Cup career, he’s known more for near-misses than greatest hits: zero Championship 4 appearances, zero wins in the sport’s “crown jewel” races (Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Southern 500) and only six career Cup wins overall, three coming at one track (Michigan International Speedway).

Through it all, Larson seemed like a driver disillusioned at times with NASCAR’s direction. He insists on a packed dirt racing schedule during the year and once claimed he’d be a full-time World Of Outlaws driver before age 40.

“Priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” he said in December. “I think teams understand that is what I love.”

Despite that track record, Larson entered 2020 in the final year of his contract and NASCAR’s top pending free agent. Car owners saw him as another Joey Logano, a talented driver in need of a reset in order to fulfill his potential and win a championship.

Instead, Larson adds to a legacy of tainted drivers who squandered top-tier opportunities. Kurt Busch got released from Team Penske in the 2011 offseason for an obscene gesture and lacing into a reporter after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart didn’t lose his job, but put an asterisk on his career after an on-track collision that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. (Stewart was investigated but ultimately never charged with manslaughter.)

It’s not the way life was supposed to turn out for the sport’s next big thing. There’s a chance Stewart might take a chance on him in 2021, like his Stewart-Haas Racing team picked up Busch a few years after former transgressions. But at bare minimum, that could mean another nine months on the sidelines while Larson sits and wonders what he’s squandered away.

“I have heard of Kyle for years now, and I am blown away by this kid,” NASCAR Hall of Famer and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said back in 2013. “He makes me look like nothing.”

Seven years later, Kyle blew his NASCAR career into smithereens and turned it into a whole bunch of nothing. This sport will be lucky if it doesn’t get dragged down along with him.

KEITH: HOW LARSON’S FIRING COULD AFFECT NASCAR iRACING

KYLE LARSON, CHIP GANASSI PART WAYS

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transfered to AWeber ( more information )
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

Support Frontstretch on Patreon

Check Also

Driver Vs. Driver: Truckin’ — Ron Hornaday Jr. Vs. Jack Sprague

While the NASCAR Cup Series might be NASCAR’s most glamorous, it’s not the only game …

Formula 1, Here We Come

Brad Keselowski re-signed with Team Penske this week in the NASCAR Cup Series for 2021, …

23 comments

  1. Avatar

    CGR is a capable team, maybe not a contending team, but a place where a talented driver like Jamie McMurray or Kurt Busch can pick up wins and qualify for playoffs. Sponsorship is decent, but probably not quite at a Gibbs or Hendrick level. But funded well enough to grab wins and stay competitive. Sponsorship dollars are near impossible to come by, even pre-Covid 19. All it takes is one incident these days for a sponsor to exercise their moral(s) clause and flee, maybe for good. Against this backdrop, it is inconceivable for a top-tier driver to even go near this word. In this day and age of cancellation, Larson’s outburst is truly shocking.

  2. Avatar

    you know i was thinking about this……do these folks larson’s age have no clue what that word means? i mean it had come back as acceptable slang for some groups. but growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, life was filled with lots of hate and turmoil.

    i guess he’s learned the hard way. every word you utter has meaning and impact on others. and when in a position like himself, a filter is a must, even if doing a non-sanctioned event video game to fill in the time during shelter in place.

    • Avatar

      I hear what you are saying, however before he was born, it was a NO NO. We were educated that it was not cool, shameful and people long before this guy at 28 years old were slapped and punished for saying so. It cost many a job with big consequences, as it should then and now. Why this day and age this idiot thought it was o.k. with the “education” everywhere, knowing what HE” had at stake if he uttered those words is just silly and costly for him and his family. Sounds like that is Kyle’s “private” way and he got caught in a big way. Phil’s piece this week about how went after Marty S. via Marty’s intro for a rain delay goofy guys playing video games, shows me where his mindset is at. I am not surprised.

  3. Avatar

    Trying to figure out the flimsy connection between what Kyle Larson said and the current President.

    • Avatar

      Yeah I thought that was a dick comparison too. So Brian France, or anyone else for that matter, isn’t allowed to voice his opinion on a presidential candidate (who eventually ended up actually being elected president)? That is total bullshit and if Frontstretch wants to take cheap shots and turn this NASCAR site into a political opinion site then I am more than happy to fan the flames. Is that what you want Tom? Then leave your personal politics out of it. President Trump was elected fair and square through the prescribed and accepted political process. If that offends your PC sensibilities then too effin bad, deal with it. Extremist groups from both sides back one candidate or the other in every election whether the candidate asks for that backing or not. Cheap shot to bring that up.

      I will not be the one to bring politics into the conversation on a NASCAR devote website, but I damn well will be the one to call it out and make sure no one else does.

    • Avatar

      I think my first comment got censored (and that’s fine if it did because it was a little bit over the top, even for me) but the bottom line is, that I am really sick of people taking little political pot shots at the president on a non-political NASCAR website and expecting people who feel differently to just let it slide. I will never let it slide. You want to start a downward spiraling, hyperbole based discussion on partisan politics? I am game and will make sure that happens whenever someone wants to throw out little political zingers on a supposedly NASCAR website.

      • Tom Bowles

        Bill B,

        I believe our spam filter caught you with d*ck. It’s an auto filter, I want to make sure you know it wasn’t held up because of any political statement you were trying to make.

        • Avatar

          Thanks Tom. I kind of felt it was my colorful language that got it flagged not the view expressed within. That is why I was alright if it had been censored. My second comment did a much better job of expressing my true intent than the first (which, had I counted to 10, wouldn’t have been submitted). I really avoid politically slanted websites because of the pointlessness of it all so I get annoyed when people bring it into a NASCAR website. From now on I will be sure to use richard instead of the D word. :)

        • Tom Bowles

          All good. Never expect to agree on everything – different views make this world go round – but know, especially as one of the site’s most frequent commenters, your viewpoint is always respected and appreciated! And you’re right… haha, the spambots are going to do what they do when you say certain words.

  4. Avatar

    Let’s show this young man some grace, he messed up like every one of us.

  5. Avatar

    So is he suspended from real racing or just pretend racing?

  6. Avatar

    Bowles is just another 2nd rate liberal hack. No wonder frontstretch is “still hiring”. Maybe CNN can spate you guys some writers

  7. Avatar

    Bowles has been locked inside to long and decided to do a major hit piece on Larson to boost site ratings. Name dropping George Wallace and Wendell Scott in the same paragraph and a NPR (unbiased news!) link to a story on Trump in the next. WOW!
    Bowles writes, “Then, coronavirus put a damper on those plans, and now a top driver spouting out the N-word threatens a total wipeout.” WOW! One driver threatens the entire existence of NASCAR? That’s a lot of power for Larson to be handle! Did he even know the weight that he carried?
    Tommydrama…

    #racismistherealvirus

  8. Avatar

    MR. EDITOR: Please advise how you can allow Mr. Bowles prejudices to be shown by putting down the voting preference of someone who made the same choice as one-half of all Americans. Is this what this site has become and will you choose to address this?

  9. Tom Bowles

    Hi everyone,

    Since a lot of commenters are headed in this direction, I figured I’d address this in bulk.

    The point of that mention (which people are suddenly clouding over the whole piece with) is that the endorsement was made right after Trump was asked about white supremacists supporting his campaign. That’s a fact; it doesn’t matter if you supported him or not.

    My point was related to NASCAR. When you endorse someone within the window of that information coming out, not only do you politicize the sport (which, sports should be apolitical – a separate conversation). But once you do it, connections will inevitably made to the sport’s history. And it’s a history that has struggled, at times, to divest itself of racism – the actual racism that was around in the early days of NASCAR and a perception by some that it still exists now.

    And the second Larson spit out that word, in public, in front of a live audience, it’s easy for so many people to turn back toward that first impression.

    Ricardo, I’m not sure what you’re trying to make. George Wallace is a fact. Wendell Scott is a fact. Are you challenging those facts? What decision would you have made with Larson? And if you’re a corporation, spending millions on NASCAR and forced to make spending cuts due to the coronavirus… would you make cuts in NASCAR, a sport where one of their top drivers spouted out a racist word, or somewhere else? It makes budgetary decisions easy for many Fortune 500 companies who may be cutting marketing budgets across the board in the coming weeks and months.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments regardless of your viewpoint. Keep them coming.

    • Matt Mclaughlin

      I seem to recall Kurt Busch got himself in some high profile trouble towards the end of 2005 in Phoenix. He got pulled over for suspicion of DUI and got mouthy with one of Sheriff Joe Arapohoe (sp) men. I forget the time but in one of the all time great.racing press releases Rousch Racing. Declared “as of 1 PM kurt Busch.is no longer Rousch Racing”s headache” Busch landed on his feet at Penske until.he went.off st Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead..They dont make second chances like they used to.

    • Avatar

      So once some fringe group like the KKK endorses a candidate then anyone associated with any organization shouldn’t endorse that candidate for fear of being linked/associated with that fringe group and therefore must squelch their right to endorse a legitimate candidate. That doesn’t sound right and, in fact, quite dangerous. It’s the small minds of people who look for any reason they can to discredit anyone they don’t like that force that association in their slanted rants. As I said above, those fringe groups support someone in every election. It’s more of a curse than a benefit. So what if they get smart and start endorsing the candidate they want to lose?

      • Avatar

        here in ga the governor had to amend a 70 yr old law that does not permit people to wear masks/cover their faces in public as a result of the klan. with everyone walking around with masks on, the fact that someone actually made comment about this law and the subsequent amendment is nuts.

        • Avatar

          So then, everyone has been breaking the law on Halloween for the last 70 years. Or is Halloween illegal in Georgia too? :)

  10. Avatar

    What troubles me about Larson using the word is that it implies that it is in hi vocabulary. As a ‘Drive For Diversity’ grad, and of mixed heritage himself, I can only speculate that he has himself encountered racial slurs as he came thru the ranks. Knowing how much damage racial slurs can cause, I am horrified that he would even consider using that word under any circumstance. Whether it should end his career, I’m not so sure.

  11. Avatar

    Ganassi had an Xfinity car sponsor that was hit with an indictment so the driver who once punched another driver in the face lost his ride. Can’t blame Ganassi for dropping Larson. That said, Larson is worth millions anyway and will never starve.
    He loves racing sprint cars on dirt so I’d guess that’s what he will do until Nascar slides him back in. Nascar has gone downhill since A drunken Brian France tossed the ring to Truex.

  12. Avatar

    its a frikken word people get over it