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 hope Larson loses sponsors ❤️pic.twitter.com/6OalFKjB34
— Emily | bIm (@Dustyjumpwings) April 13, 2020
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.
“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.
Statement from Credit One Bank regarding sponsorship of Kyle Larson. pic.twitter.com/SscEVpoz1z
— Credit One Bank (@CreditOneBank) April 13, 2020
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.